Mario Williams of Richlands (NC) High School is considered by many to be one of the nation's very best prospects for the class of 2003. Rivals.com has assigned him a four-star rating. The Insiders.com and recruiting analyst Tom Lemming have named him one of the top 100 players in the nation regardless of position. SuperPrep went a step further, listing him one of the top 50 prospects in the nation in its preseason ratings.
NC Recruiting analyst Sammy Batten of The Fayetteville Observer rated Williams the No. 2 prospect in the state and said, " The tendency these days is to compare defensive end prospects like Mario to Julius Peppers. Normally, that's an unfair comparison. But Mario may be the closest thing to that we've seen in our state since Peppers came out of Southern Nash. His build, his speed and his agility are all similar to Julius at the same stage. By his freshman year in college Mario could weigh in the 260 to 270 range. So physically, he should be able to make an immediate impact for whatever school he signs with. If he continues to develop, I envision him as a four-year letterman and a three-year starter at the Division I level."
And while recruiting analysts can't find enough superlatives to describe Williams' seemingly unlimited potential, he says that football wasn't always a given for him and that in his younger days he was just an average guy playing a game he loved. In fact, during his middle school days, Williams played mostly as a fullback or running back- a far cry from the tenacious defensive end prospect that college coaches are so excited about today.
Williams told The Wolfpacker, "If you were to go by my size and height back to elementary school, I was just average. But when I got to high school my freshman year and started varsity, I don't know what happened, everything just clicked. When I was little as a kid I didn't ever think about (playing college football). But when I got to high school it came to me that if I played hard the schools would find me."
Find him they did and for good reason. Already an impressive 6-4 and 235 pounds as a junior, Williams worked hard on improving his strength during the off-season and has since added an additional 20 pounds of muscle- not to mention a late growth spurt. He now checks in at 6-6, 257 pounds and boasts a bench press in excess of 360 pounds. However, what really separates Williams from other recruits is his tremendous speed. He consistently runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.55 to 4.6-second range with a personal best of 4.48-seconds.
He put those attributes to good use in 2001 as he hauled in 22 passes for 407 yards and six scores from his TE spot. Lining up as an ILB on defense, Williams tallied 120 tackles en route to team MVP, all-conference and all-area honors. In fact, most consider him the main reason behind turning a 2-9 program his ninth grade year, into an 11-2, state playoff qualifier in 2001.
During his junior campaign, NC State saw the awesome potential in Williams and promptly offered a scholarship. " They jumped on me pretty early," said Williams. "They were like the first ones to notice me." Shortly thereafter, Williams accepted the Pack's offer and the Wolfpack's first recruit for the class of 2003 was on the board. Or was it?
In April of this year Williams attended a photo shoot at USC with recruiting analyst Tom Lemming and at that point the consensus all-american became a national recruit. All of a sudden schools like Clemson, Maryland, USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State, UNC and Tennessee became involved. In fact, all of them have since offered scholarships with the exception of Notre Dame and Ohio State. Williams expressed interest in seeing what those schools had to offer and it was only a matter of time before several media outlets declared him a NC State "de-commit".
However, Williams was quick to point out that while it was true he did have an interest in checking out what other schools had to offer, he felt he should have never been removed from the Pack's commit list.
"All I'm doing is basically just seeing what is out there," said Williams. (I'm) seeing what everybody else has to offer. I never came out and said I de-committed from State."
That State still rides atop the recruiting pile has not come by accident. The Pack has been diligent in their pursuit and when asked who was recruiting him the hardest, Williams didn't list a team, as most prospects are prone to do- instead, he named a person.
"Doc Holliday," said Williams. "He's just determination. He's always on you. I get letters every day. I can call them now so I call him a couple of times a week and we talk about how my practice was or how they're practice was."
Another factor in the Pack's corner is location. Although Williams made it clear that distance would not be a factor in his ultimate decision, the Pack's proximity to family and friends is a plus.
"Being that it's close to home I can come back just about anytime I really wanted to and wouldn't be too far of a drive," said Williams. "I could go and come back the same day. My friends all live here or in Durham and Winston-Salem. Then when I found out how the stadium is looking, I was like man that's going to be really nice."
Perhaps the most critical selling point for the Wolfpack is playing time and with graduation due to hit the Pack's DE position hard in 2003 with the departure of the entire two-deep, landing a player with the potential to contribute sooner rather than later is paramount. Williams indicated that early playing time is just what he's looking for.
"I've never waited to play," said Williams. "When I came to varsity in high school I started. This will be my fourth year starting and I've played just about every play since then- offense, defense and special teams. I feel as if I can come in and start and if I don't, I will eventually. So really, I don't like to wait."
And while NC State clearly holds the upper hand currently, an old nemesis will look to change that between now and the time Williams officially signs his letter-of-intent in December.
The Tennessee Volunteers have long been known to recruit a select few of the elite prospects in NC each year, and have had their fair share of success in luring those prospects to Knoxville. They'll hope to make Williams the latest and have positioned themselves as a major player.
"They connected," said Williams. "They really did. I have a lot of stuff from them and the first day they could've come out in May they were the first ones at the school that morning. They beat everyone there. That's just like when NC State had offered me the scholarship when I first committed."
Williams also made a trip to Tennessee for the Vols junior day and despite being pressed for time, came away impressed. "When I went to Tennessee I got there late and I really didn't get to see Knoxville," said Williams. "The next morning when I got up it was time to go to the stadium and when I got there all I got to see was the place where they've got all their pictures and stuff at. The stadium is across the road from it. That stadium is real nice but I didn't get to see Knoxville so I don't really know what's there. I'll check out Knoxville when I go for my official visit." Williams added that he plans to make his official visit the weekend of the Miami-Tennessee contest.
However, even though the Vols are a serious contender, the Pack is still the team to beat.
"I'm a pretty strong commit (to State)," said Williams. I'd say I'm 85% sure. I talk to them at least once a week now and then they'll be able to start calling me in September. They're beating Tennessee but Tennessee is in there as well."
Williams, who has taken an accelerated academic load while maintaining a 3.3 GPA, plans to make a final decision in December before enrolling in college next January. He stated that his mother would be making the trek with him, whereever he chooses to go, and she has stated that distance really isn't a factor for her either.
For now, Williams will put recruiting on the back-burner for a while as he turns his focus to the upcoming season and another state playoff run. He's also mapped out a few personal goals he hopes to accomplish by year's end.
"Let's see, I want to be player-of the-year and named an all-american," said Williams. "I'd like to get at least two sacks a game and average about 12 to 15 tackles a game."
Lofty goals, but certainly attainable. Amazing just how far an average player has come.