MU defense looks to co-captain Williams for answers

Tuesday, September 11, 2007 | 7:50 p.m. CDT; updated 10:55 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — There was a pleasant surprise waiting for Lorenzo Williams as he left the Ole Miss locker room Saturday night and headed to the team bus following the Tigers’ 38-25 win.

A team official handed out post-game dinners like they were Christmas presents. The meal: Popeyes chicken and a banana.

Not exactly your breakfast of champions. But that didn’t bother Williams, the Tigers’ 6-foot-1, 295-pound starting nose tackle. Popeyes is his favorite.

“Let me put this on record right now,” he said. “Somebody has to get a Popeyes in Columbia. They got to, man.”

As for the banana?

“The banana is more for body reasons, for health, because they’ve got a lot of potassium in them to keep you from getting cramped up,” said Williams, acting as the team’s resident nutritionist. “Bananas help you get to the plane at least.”

The fried chicken was a welcome surprise, but the taste of the Tigers’ win over the Rebels wasn’t nearly as satisfying. For the third straight game dating back to last year’s Sun Bowl, the defense imploded in the second half, giving up big plays that allowed the opposing team a chance to rally.

Williams, a senior co-captain on the team, isn’t used to failure. He was recruited by several Ivy League schools because of his impressive academic standings and even operated a successful snow cone business in the spring of 2006. On the field, he’s been a beast for the Tigers, clogging up the middle and making life miserable for quarterbacks.

So when the defense is struggling — and it is, giving up a startling 29.5 points and 484.5 yards per game — he looks at it as a reflection upon himself.

“Of course I take it personally,” he said. “I’m a leader on this team, and when things aren’t going right, it’s part of my responsibility to get (the defense) to play better.”

As one of the Tigers’ most outspoken and honest players, Williams has no problem telling it like it is. And after the team gave up 534 yards to an Ole Miss offense that ranked last in the Southeastern Conference a year ago, Williams had a lot to say.

“Nobody’s going to get down on each other,” he said. “It’s more like, ‘Man, we have to get this fixed.’ Whatever it is that needs to get fixed has got to get fixed because we can’t go into Big 12 (conference play) like this.”

The defense, which returned just five starters from last year, has looked lost and confused in the first two games, especially in the second half when it has surrendered big plays. The mental lapses, coach Gary Pinkel said, are the biggest reasons why the Tigers are having trouble putting teams away.

“I think big plays are when your defense wears down,” he said. “That’s why all coaches say stop the run and don’t give up big plays, because they wear you down.”

Junior defensive tackle Ziggy Hood said that despite all the new faces, the defense has become extremely close. When they’re not practicing they’re usually playing spades, watching TV or talking about the next week’s game.

“The chemistry is unbelievable,” he said. “We’ve got dudes hanging out with dudes that haven’t really ever hung out before.”

That, in large part, is because of Williams, who sets the tone for the defense.

“He’s the leader,” Hood said. “Right now he’s the backbone of the defense. If we didn’t have him it’d be kind of awkward. So right now, he’s running things. It’s only right to follow him.”

If the defense does follow Williams, it should be improved by the time the Tigers face Nebraska in the Big 12 opener on Oct. 6. Getting a Popeyes restaurant in Columbia, however, may take a little longer.

“That’s the best chicken on the planet, so we need to get that going,” Williams said.

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