MANHATTAN — After two years of junior college, Meshak Williams arrived at Kansas State happy to simply be a part of big-time college football.
He was content contributing on special teams. He enjoyed helping the defensive line as a sub. And he loved going to the Cotton Bowl.
But he wanted more out of his final season. The senior defensive end wanted to become a versatile player, capable of providing more than the seven sacks he made as a third-down, pass-rush specialist.
Coaches didn’t trust him enough to play full-time as a junior. The more he thought about it, watching games from the sidelines — even Big 12 games — wasn’t much fun. So he pushed himself to become a more complete defensive lineman this season, no matter the cost.
That meant learning how to defend passes at the line of scrimmage, stopping the run, avoiding penalties and building up his endurance. That meant spending a lot of time in the video room and a whole lot more time on a treadmill.
“I do a lot of film watching now, seeing who I’m going against, seeing who is in front of me and what I have to do to beat the offensive lineman, what kind of offense they’re running and when they are running it,” Williams said. “I had to practice hard and work on my flaws. I feel like I’ve been getting better. That’s why I’ve been making plays.”
On Saturday, that progress was obvious. He was arguably the best defender on the field, helping the Wildcats beat Texas Tech 55-24 with one of the most well-rounded performances you will ever see. Williams made a sack, forced a fumble, knocked down a pass and blocked a kick.
“I’m more focused,” Williams said. “I know a lot more about what I’m doing and how I’m playing. Being a starter and an every-down player, to do that you’ve got to be more focused and you can’t let your defense down.”
K-State coach Bill Snyder had high hopes for Williams before the season, and noticed big improvements when Big 12 play began. Williams started getting his hands in the way of passes, he began hurrying quarterbacks more consistently and he was in much better shape.
Along with former Hutchinson Community College teammate Adam Davis on the other end of the defensive line, Williams has helped K-State establish a stronger pass rush than last year.
“There is a little bit more of a relentless approach for him,” Snyder said. “You put those guys on the edge, they’ve got a lot of responsibility. In this league pass rush is extremely vital and important. It takes a relentless individual to do it over and over again knowing that you may only get to that guy at best two or three times during the course of a ballgame, and yet you have to do it 70 times … that takes persistence. I think he has gained in that respect.”
His teammates have also noticed a change in his demeanor off the field.
As a junior, Williams was quiet. He rarely told jokes during the week and never addressed his teammates before or after games. That has changed.
“He kind of reminds you of the guy from Friday Night Lights they call ‘The Preacher Man’,” receiver Curry Sexton said. “He never really said much and then in the state championship game at halftime when they were losing he started going off. Right before the West Virginia game, Meshak started saying what was on his mind. Everyone took it to heart. When you hear from a guy you don’t normally hear from like Meshak everyone really notices. That’s something that has been big for our team and our defense.”
Williams also ran up and down the sidelines, motivating his teammates during the first half of the Texas Tech game, and acted like a leader at halftime.
“Meshak Williams has kind of been stepping up in that role,” fullback Braden Wilson said.
With 23 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks, three passes defended and three forced fumbles this season he is also leading by example. For the first time, Williams is doing it all.
That took longer than some expected when he committed to K-State coming out of high school in Sylvester, Ga., because a low SAT score landed him in junior college. But he has no regrets. He learned from his two seasons at Hutchinson the same way he learned from his first season in Manhattan.
“It all worked out perfectly,” Williams said. “The way things are going now, I’m loving every moment of it.”
Walker out, Lucas in — Snyder didn’t formally address the status of linebacker Tre Walker on Tuesday, but his teammates are preparing to play Oklahoma State, and possibly beyond, without him. Walker was helped off the field on Saturday following an injury to his leg.
Walker, who has made 19 tackles and leads the team onto the field before each game, has indicated on Twitter that he is walking with the help of crutches.
“He is the kind of guy that really needs to be out on the field for his sake,” Wilson said. “But if we’re out there playing, giving everything we have, that’s going to mean a lot to him although he can’t be out there.”
Snyder said starting left tackle Cornelius Lucas will likely play against Oklahoma State after limping off the field against Texas Tech.