Tennessee transfer Preston Williams making the most of his second chance with CSU football
Rashard Higgins was a hidden gem, a two-star prospect at Mesquite High School in suburban Dallas, when CSU receivers coach Alvis Whitted discovered him.
Michael Gallup was far from a proven commodity when he signed with Colorado State University’s football program after two years at Butler County Community College in Kansas.
Preston Williams, though, was a five-star prospect coming out high school in Lovejoy, Georgia, with scholarship offers from just about every major college football program in the country — Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Miami, Ohio State, Oklahoma State or Texas A&M.
He could easily have been on the other sideline Saturday, when the Rams (1-2) visit Florida (1-1) in a 2 p.m. MT game.
But the talented 6-foot-4, 210-pounder is playing for CSU, where he has caught 27 passes for 391 yards and four touchdowns in his first three games.
The simple answer is he wanted to play for Mike Bobo.
Not at first, he said after a practice earlier this week. Otherwise, he would have signed with Georgia out of high school.
But after spending 1½ seasons at Tennessee, where he caught 16 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games, CSU and its high-powered offense started looking pretty good to Williams. He had seen the numbers Higgins put up in 2014, leading the nation in receiving yards (1,750) and touchdowns (17) while becoming one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s outstanding receiver.
Higgins is now with the Cleveland Browns.
And Williams remembered Bobo, one of two Georgia assistant coaches who were in the recovery room when he woke up after a surgery to repair a torn ACL during his senior year of high school.
“It’s just building a relationship,” Bobo said. “You do that with every guy you recruit, and you get some and you don’t. You wish them well, and then sometimes it comes back where you’re able to talk to them again.
“Treat people the right way, and then you’ve got a chance to get them if things go the other way.”
Most schools weren’t willing to offer Williams, who enrolled at CSU for the 2017 spring semester, a scholarship right away, knowing he’d have to sit out his first season under NCAA transfer rules. Bobo had a scholarship available and knew this was a rare opportunity to bring a five-star prospect to CSU.
“He’s obviously got natural talent; he’s long, he’s got speed, he’s got hands, he’s got body control, he’s got awareness, man,” Bobo said. “He’s got awareness in the zone, when to sit down.”
And he’s still relatively “raw” as a receiver, the coach said. Higgins and Gallup, a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award in 2017 who is a rookie with the Dallas Cowboys, were both consensus All-Americans, only the third and fourth CSU players ever to earn such recognition.
“They paved the way for me,” Williams said. “They set outstanding records. I just want to be like those guys.”
Williams, a junior, looks like a future NFL receiver. Yet in his first season with the Rams, he’s still playing catch-up in many respects.
The receiver was suspended for much of last season following arrests for harassment, tampering and domestic violence after an altercation with a former girlfriend. Williams allegedly shoved her multiple times during an argument at an off-campus apartment the two shared, according to Fort Collins police reports. He was arrested again three weeks later by CSU police for violating a restraining order after the first arrest.
Williams, now 21, pleaded guilty to the harassment charge in January and received a deferred sentence. The other charges were dismissed by Larimer County Court Judge Mary Joan Berenato, according to court records.
Williams wasn’t allowed to use practice facilities or participate in off-season workouts during his suspension, Bobo said.
He easily could have given up on the Rams at that point, and more than one teammate wondered if the talented receiver would ever play for CSU.
“He was definitely on thin ice,” senior receiver Bisi Johnson said.
Bobo stayed in touch with Williams during the suspension, and Williams said he had strong support from his family.
He was determined to make things right.
Williams was allowed to practice again last spring but was held out of the spring game because he had not yet been cleared to play, Bobo said. CSU officials declined to discuss the university’s student-conduct process or even confirm that Williams participated in it.
“It was a tough process for him,” Bobo said. “Basically, he was suspended indefinitely, had no access to the building and had to clean up some things on his own. It was a lot of checklists that he had to go through with us and other people and certain things, and he handled those things like he was supposed to. It was a growing up process for him.”
When practices started again in late July, the receiver, who studied his playbook extensively during his suspension, was fully cleared to play this fall.
And Williams, who hadn’t played since early in the 2016 season as a sophomore at Tennessee, was more than ready to get back on a football field and show everyone what he could do.
He caught nine passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener, a 43-34 loss to Hawaii. He had six catches for 49 yards in a 45-13 loss to Colorado. And he caught 12 passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns last weekend in a stunning 34-27 comeback win over Arkansas.
He is always there “to make a big play when you need it,” Bobo said. “It’s just making a big play in that moment; that’s what we talk about. Everything’s not always going to be picture-perfect schematically. Sometimes guys have got to make plays for you to move the ball offensively, and he has done that and did it in a big way the other night against Arkansas.”
Williams' catch and run for a 69-yard gain late in the third quarter of the season opener sparked a late comeback by the Rams, who had trailed by 30 points at the time. He caught a 4-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter against Arkansas to cut the Razorbacks’ lead at the time to 27-17, then caught a pass for a 31-yard gain to set up his own 10-yard TD reception on the Rams’ next possession as they closed the gap to 27-24 early in the fourth quarter.
His catches for gains of 25 yards to the Arkansas 29-yard line and 13 yards to the 15 helped the Rams score the winning touchdown on a 1-yard run by Izzy Matthews with 8 seconds remaining.
“If you have eyes, you can tell that Preston Williams is one of the best play-makers in the nation; it’s as simple as that,” said Matthews, a senior running back. “Any time a big play’s needed, he’s the guy that always ends up coming up with the ball, just like Mike (Gallup) was, just like Rashard (Higgins) was.”
Follow reporter Kelly Lyell at twitter.com/KellyLyell and facebook.com/KellyLyell.news and listen to him talk CSU sports at 12:35 p.m. Thursdays on KFKA radio (AM 1310) and 8:45 a.m. Saturdays on Denver’s ESPN radio (AM 1600).