DeKALB – Matt Williams snagged his share of screen time during the Northern Illinois football team’s Orange Bowl appearance last season.
He pumped his arms and moved about, all in the name of aiding Huskies quarterback Jordan Lynch.
As Thursday’s Poinsettia Bowl against Utah State in San Diego approaches, Williams finds he’s personifying an old adage. The more things change for the redshirt freshman from Geneva, the more things stay the same.
Even after shifting from a backup quarterback who signaled plays from the sideline to a wide receiver and punt returner, Williams still is only here to help.
“I knew none of [the other quarterbacks] were really going to play that much because Jordan was still here,” Williams said. “I felt like I could contribute in other ways, so I went into [offensive coordinator Bob] Cole and said, ‘What can I do?’ He was like, ‘Go out and play some receiver.’ I was like, ‘All right.’ ”
Williams started his varsity high school career at wide receiver as a sophomore in 2009 before quarterbacking the Vikings to a 15-6 record and a pair of playoff appearances as a junior and senior.
Huskies redshirt junior linebacker Michael Santacaterina, a fellow Geneva product, was in his final high school season when Williams debuted.
“Yeah, you couldn’t forget him,” Santacaterina said. “He was a sophomore, but he acted like he was a fifth-year senior at the time. So he had to kind of learn his place a little bit, as usual, but Matt’s a great kid, awesome kid. I love him, and he’s doing a great job so far.”
Appearing in 10 of the Huskies’ 13 games to date, Williams has six receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown. His lone score came in an Oct. 26 rout of Eastern Michigan, when the Huskies faked a jet sweep before backup Matt McIntosh found Williams on a “crack” post pattern for 36 yards.
Improvisation steered what was arguably Williams’ most important catch. With NIU and Ball State tied midway through the fourth quarter of a Nov. 13 game pivotal to the Mid-American Conference West title race, the Huskies faced a third-and-11 from their own 38-yard line.
After eluding heavy pressure, Lynch spotted Williams darting upfield and connected with him for a 25-yard gain. NIU scored what stood up as the game-winning touchdown two plays later.
“That was just Jordan making a play, really,” Williams said. “I was there to catch it. It was all Jordan. He got out of a sack. I just turned an out into an up, Jordan put it out there and just made a play.”
Lynch, a senior who finished third in Heisman Trophy voting earlier this month, has had a lot on his mind lately, but the efforts of his one-time understudy aren’t forgotten.
“We ask a lot of him at receiver, and he did a good job filling the role in,” Lynch said. “He came up with a few key catches, and he’s filling that spot pretty nice.”
Cole suggested he’s open to Williams throwing his backwards hat back into the quarterback shuffle in 2014, if he so chooses. He lauds Williams’ athleticism, which was a deciding factor when Cole endorsed a position change in the summer.
“We’ll probably sit down and talk about it when the season’s over,” Cole said. “Right now, we’re just going to let him get out there and keep doing what he’s doing, because he’s helping us out a ton.”
“He’s extremely athletic, he’s got a good work ethic, knows the offense and he makes plays. When the ball gets thrown to him, the guy makes plays.”
Williams occasionally makes plays when the ball is kicked to him, too. He returned the first punt of his playing career – pee-wee or otherwise – during an Oct. 5 victory at Kent State, filling in after injuries led coaches his way.
The Huskies experimented with Williams as a punt returner in the offseason, rationalizing that his background as a baseball center fielder in high school provided a solid base. He has 84 return yards on five punts entering the Poinsettia Bowl.
Williams met with NIU football and baseball coaches in February for preliminary talks about playing both sports. After first indicating he would “deal with all the other stuff after the [bowl] game,” Williams later said “I’m definitely playing” baseball. His arm strength hardly has waned, and he stayed after Thursday’s practice to throw to fellow receiver Da’Ron Brown, who wanted extra reps.
Being a multisport athlete again would reconnect Williams to his high school days, which often are close at hand given Vikings coach Rob Wicinski’s status as an NIU alumnus. Williams attended two Geneva games at Burgess Field this fall, and was reminded of his time as a receiver, quarterback and scrambling punter.
Trying the latter task for the Huskies would certainly bring Williams full-circle. Could he be so bold if Huskies special teams coordinator Kevin Kane ever had a hunch?
“I don’t know. We’ll see,” Williams said. “If it gets loose, right?”