Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
Ohio State redshirt senior defensive end Nathan Williams trailed behind the pack of scarlet and gray-clad Buckeyes players as the team rushed onto the field for the opening game of the 2012 season.
Williams said he was savoring the cheers of the 105,039 fans in attendance Saturday at Ohio Stadium for the No. 18 Buckeyes’ game against the Miami (Ohio) RedHawks.
It was Williams’ first chance to make the dash onto the field since OSU’s Sept. 3, 2011, home opener against the Akron Zips, which he exited with an injury that would eventually require season-ending microfracture surgery to repair his injured knee.
In the year that followed the game against Akron, Williams’ life has consisted mostly of rehab and icing his injured left knee.
Football, Williams said, was a job he loved to get up in the morning for, and it was taken from him last September.
“For so many months, I was down and out,” Williams said, “and on a machine and icing. Countless ice bags I’ve made.”
Projected by several OSU coaches to play between eight and 10 snaps in his return against the RedHawks, Williams reclaimed his livelihood in surprising fashion – he started, was on the field for about 30 plays and made two solo tackles in OSU’s 56-10 win.
“It means a lot. I’m at a loss for words,” Williams said following his return. “I’m happy that the coaches believe in me and that these players have stuck by my side and Buckeye Nation stuck by my side. I appreciate everyone for that.”
First-year OSU coach Urban Meyer was noncommittal about Williams’ status for Saturday’s game until Tuesday when the player passed tests in practice to get into the game.
After beating the RedHawks, Meyer said Williams played more than he expected and lauded his performance.
“I love Nate. I love the fact that he is a warrior, that he loves Ohio State. That he’s doing the best he can,” Meyer said. “And I like the fact that (Williams’ position coaches) had enough confidence to get him in the game.”
It was more of the same from OSU co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell, who said he wanted to ease Williams back into the flow of the game by limiting his time on the field.
That plan changed after watching Williams get loose before kickoff, Fickell said, adding he could tell Williams had a chance to really make an impact.
That intuition was realized by game’s end.
“You see what kind of competitor he is,” Fickell said after the game. “From what I saw, he looked pretty good.”
There’s still work to be done – Williams knows that. He failed to convince himself that he was the same player that tallied 92 tackles, 26 tackles for loss and 11 sacks prior to the surgery that ended his 2011 season.
On Miami’s first drive of the game, Williams missed a chance to sack RedHawks senior quarterback Zac Dysert, a player Meyer said has NFL potential.
“If I would have got (Dysert), I would have considered that I’m back,” Williams said. “I’m kind of upset that I didn’t. My glove kind of slipped over top of him. There ain’t gonna be no more of that.”
Williams said he saw an opportunity on the play and went for it, but defensive line coach Mike Vrabel disagreed during a Monday interview at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, saying there was no opportunity because Williams didn’t do his job.
Perhaps evidence of lingering rust, Williams incorrectly abandoned his assignment to cover a Miami running back on the play, Vrabel said.
However, Vrabel’s remarks came across as playful chides at Williams – he and members of the media laughed while delivering his criticisms with a smile. Vrabel said he was among those that were just glad Williams was a productive member of the team again.
“Nathan, God love him, he can tell you whatever he wants,” Vrabel said. “I’m happy he was out there. He had some energy. He had some enthusiasm. (He) played with some toughness and, you know, I think it was a big confidence builder for him to be out there. He was pumped. He was excited that he could do it.”
Considering the long hours of rehab and bagging ice cubes to tape to his surgically repaired knee, pumped might be an understatement.
“Unparalleled” and “a dream come true” were the words Williams used to describe his feelings.
“Getting another chance to be in this stadium and play for you guys – I wake up every morning looking forward to go to work just to make you guys happy,” he said, “so I’m not going to take it for granted.”
OSU returns to action Saturday at Ohio Stadium with a game against Central Florida scheduled for noon.