Southeastern Louisiana running back Devonte Williams’ nickname is “The Matrix.” He showed why in the Lions’ season-opening victory against Jacksonville State.
Williams, a senior from Columbia, Maryland, took a swing pass and froze J-State linebacker Zack Woodard with a hesitation step. Williams then accelerated down the right sideline for a 58-yard scoring play to give the Lions a 21-7 lead just before halftime.
“It’s always been in my arsenal,” Williams said with a laugh. “I’ve done that in practice a few times. My teammates said that’s where my nickname comes from.”
Williams' ability to show a move like that is a product of a new offensive outlook for the Lions, who travel to Oxford, Mississippi, to play Ole Miss at 3 p.m. Saturday in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Being more aggressive and putting players like Williams in favorable situations is the offense's new matrix.
“What you saw from Devonte and the same thing with Coop (backup Marcus Cooper): opportunities in the open field,” Lions coach Frank Scelfo said. “Those guys have talents you can take advantage of. We’ve got to get them in space in the run game and the pass game. There are some times where we have to run between the tackles. They can be dynamic guys who can turn three- or four-yard gains into 13-, 14-yard gains.”
Williams, the Lions' leading returning rusher last year, rushed for 37 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries and caught four passes for 76. He used his speed to turn the left corner untouched on a 4-yard scoring run for the Lions first TD.
Last year Williams rushed for 293 yards on 86 carries and caught 20 passes for 149 yards, but seldom could unleash his potential. That is changing.
“We’re putting our foot on the gas pedal this year,” Williams said. “The offensive line is coming together as a unit. As they gel, our running game will steadily get better. Coaches have emphasized physicality between the tackles.”
Scelfo went with a scorched earth policy in getting the whole team to think more aggressively, especially on offense, which didn’t have a strong balance of running and passing. Those two aspects complemented each other better in the season-opening upset of the Gamecocks.
“I didn’t think we did a good enough job last year with our players, getting them off the ball and up the field,” Scelfo said. “We’re much more sound up front. Our staff has done a better job of portraying what we want offensively and how we want to play. We want to be more aggressive. More aggressive coaching, playing, taping ankles, making them drink Powerade, everything we do.
“Our run game is based on that — come off the ball, play physical and see what happens. We played too laterally and too soft last year.”
Scelfo said the new style fits Williams and Cooper better. Instead of running laterally and waiting for a hole to open, they are attacking a designated spot and giving the ballcarrier the option to cut upfield or bounce it outside
“The growth in him was understanding the blocking scheme and feeling more comfortable with it,” Scelfo said. “That’s why I think you will see more production.”
Williams showed that explosiveness as a punt returner last year and was a preseason All-Southland Conference at that position.
“Last year was our first time in the offense as a unit,” Williams said. “We have an explosive offense now. When we work together, we’re unstoppable. We’re trying to create mismatches with the defense. Getting guys in open space to make plays.”
Cooper said the team was disappointed it couldn’t show more last week because of the Bethune-Cookman game being cancelled. He carried only three times but knows he will get his chances.
“That was just a small part of what we can do as an offense,” Cooper said. “I’ll have my opportunities. Devonte was taking care of business. He’s a great leader and we try to stick together to be that 1-2 punch.
“That’s what I expect from him. He’s good in the open field. I love the way the offensive line is playing. Our time will come.”