Love And Basketball At MSU With Forwards Aric Holman And Ketara Chapel

Being 6’11” makes a lot of things difficult. Walking through doorways, driving cars, buying clothes. Being in college only presents more challenges for a young man trying to sit comfortably in a classroom desk built for people a foot shorter or trying to find a dorm room bed where his legs don’t stick out of the end like a baguette in a grocery sack.

screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-6-07-53-pmFor Aric Holman, now a sophomore on Mississippi State’s basketball team, the problems didn’t end there. As he continued to out-grow his classmates over the years, Holman neared the end of high school in Owensboro, Kentucky, convinced there was going to forever be one more complication from his great height: dating.

“Where I came from, anywhere in Kentucky, you didn’t see any tall girls,” he said. “Like, 5’10”, maybe.”

Then he got to college, where his men’s team at MSU shared a court with one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country. There, he discovered members of the opposite sex who, if they couldn’t quite look him straight in the eye, could at least get pretty close.

“I wasn’t expecting to see girls as tall as them,” Holman said. “You’re like, OK, now maybe I’ve got a chance.”

“A chance” might be the best way to describe it. A small chance. A minimal chance. More of a pipe dream, really, to hear the story from Ketara Chapel, the 6’1” senior forward who had no intentions of dating anyone at all, let alone a basketball player, during her time at MSU.

“I didn’t want to date anybody,” she said. “I don’t have time for a relationship.”

Or so she thought, anyway. Chapel and Holman have now been together for more than one year.

“Everybody that had tried to talk to me, I was like, noooo, I’m not gonna talk to you,” Chapel said of her first couple years on campus. “I’d turn them down. But I don’t know, there was something special about Aric.”

screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-6-13-40-pmHolman knew her reputation, knew her lack of interest in dating as she focused on school and basketball. But after he met her, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. And considering their two teams were sharing the same facilities day-in and day-out, it was hard not to run into each other on a pretty regular basis. In fact, as one might expect, that’s exactly how they had met in the first place.

In the summer of 2015, Holman was a quiet freshman, brand new to Starkville and ready for his first season of college basketball. Having just arrived, Holman didn’t have many friends yet as he sat on a training table deep in the bowels of Humphrey Coliseum and watched two of his older teammates joke around with a tall girl from the women’s team who Holman had to admit was pretty cute. Then, for some reason, she came over and talked to him.

Perhaps to reiterate the distance she was keeping between herself and the two seniors talking to her, she stepped aside and told them she wanted to talk to her friend Aric – her “friend” who she had never met.

“I was like, hold up, you don’t even know me, why are you coming at me like that,” Holman remembered, teasing Chapel as he relayed the story.

“I just needed somebody to talk to,” she was quick to explain.

Chapel and Holman at Maroon Madness, the preseason basketball pep rally for both teams

Chapel and Holman at Maroon Madness, the preseason basketball pep rally for both teams

That, however, was in July, and the two didn’t go on their first date until after Christmas break that year. Even if Holman was a welcomed sight for that moment in the training room, Chapel still had no interest in dating him or anyone, despite Holman’s piqued interest from that first conversation. Each attempt at approaching her after that day seemed like wasted effort, a fact his teammates were quick to point out.

“Every time they saw me talking to her, they were like, ‘It’s over, don’t even try, bruh. She’s not gonna talk to you.’”

Luckily, Chapel’s teammates were a bit more supportive. Despite her initial wariness, she was convinced to let down her guard when a pair of her teammates vouched for the tall freshman.

“They said, ‘Give him a chance, he’s a sweet guy, he’s not like everyone else and all the other boys,’” she recalled. “So, I gave him a chance.”

Fortunately for them both, her teammates were right, and his were quite wrong. All that’s happened since – days spent watching movies together and nights full of watching each other’s games – is a matter of history, and all that’s left to come is property of a promising future. What’s important to them both is that, against great odds, they found each other and that each saw something in the other they considered quite special indeed.

“There’s a lot,” Holman said, trying to explain what it is he like so much about Chapel, “but I would say the main thing is how independent she is. She doesn’t have to depend on me for me anything. She can get stuff done on her own. I really respect that about her.”

“How sweet he is,” Chapel said, turning to look at Holman as she answered the same question. “He’s kind. Even though he doesn’t talk that much – like, I have to initiate every conversation – but he’s a real gentleman. He makes me laugh.”

And yes, despite his tendency to remain tight-lipped, Chapel has managed to open up the otherwise quiet Holman.

“When I talk to her,” he said, “I can talk to her about anything.”

Being 6’11” has its challenges, sure. But it isn’t always so bad.

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On The Recruitment And Commitment Of New MSU RB Kylin Hill

Now the highest-rated running back the school has signed in over a decade, Kylin Hill’s first brushes with Mississippi State football came years ago. The Columbus, Mississippi, native was just a little kid when he first started cheering for the Bulldogs, the dream of being a football player dancing through his young mind, even if it didn’t seem truly possible.

nsd17_hillAs Hill’s body grew, so too did his passion for football. By the time he reached high school, what was once just the daydream of a child had become a near certain reality – Kylin Hill was going to be one of the chosen few who are able take the big stage in college football. The eventual question of where would he play was preceded by what now seems like a silly one: who would want him to come play for them?

Hill could have signed just about anywhere in the country today, if he had wanted to, but the summer before his 10th grade year at Columbus High School, his name was still decidedly under the radar compared to the attention he has garnered since. In an effort to earn the respect that was soon to come, Hill went to a camp at MSU to show what talents he had. It was there that State’s coaches got their first up-close look at him.

“At that point we knew,” MSU running backs coach Greg Knox said. “We wanted him. He was going to be special.”

From there, Hill’s career exploded. The talented running back quickly worked his way onto the field, and as his role grew, the attention he received from media and colleges alike multiplied exponentially. In his last two years of school, Hill racked up 3,493 yards and 42 touchdowns on the ground, complemented by his 610 receiving yards and four touchdowns.

By the time his senior year was over, Hill was a four-star running back with offers to go any area of the country he liked, everywhere from LSU, Florida and Alabama to Ole Miss, Oregon State and Tennessee. Not that it was hard to predict, but MSU’s coaches were proven right after their evaluation so many years before.

“As he grew from that year and you continued to watch him, he got better and better,” Knox said. “His body started to change. He got stronger. Now he’s a more powerful runner. Still has great footwork, great vision. He’s very explosive, now, going from the point we first saw him to now in his career. A very explosive runner.”

That explained why MSU wanted him, of course. Meanwhile, Hill wisely took his time in deciding where he wanted to go, but what seemed like destiny became reality for the little kid from Columbus when he signed on to play for MSU.

Before he could make that choice, however, he needed to learn more than just the school colors and what little history he knew from growing up in the Golden Triangle. When Hill’s recruitment began, he had the opportunity to open the back panel and see how the Mississippi State machine worked.

Beyond comfort level with the city, the campus and the people, two things that helped MSU recruit Hill were found in their proven ability to develop true student-athletes. State’s track record of 1) players graduating and 2) players going on to the NFL were hard to ignore.

“I think it helps in recruiting for kids to see what you’ve done with the production of your program,” Knox said. “You’re producing NFL players. You’re helping them develop into what they want to be – NFL players. You’re giving them that opportunity to develop themselves and possibly go on and play at a higher level. In the whole big picture, they’re getting a degree out of it. That’s the main thing. But they see your program, they look at the inside of it, they see how you’re developing kids and giving them a shot at the next level.”

Today, when Hill signed his letter of intent and faxed it to MSU’s football office, it was the end of one journey and the beginning of another. And while it may have taken a while, the realization of the childhood dream should’ve been obvious from the start.

“He always said this was childhood favorite. This was where he wanted to come,” Knox said. “He’s Maroon and White, and we’re happy about that.”

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MSU’s ‘Invisible Star’ Abdul Ado Quietly Changes His Team

For years, astronomers were baffled by dark spots in the night sky. I mean, sure, most of the night sky is dark by nature, what with the sun being on the other side of the Earth. But as telescopes grew from basic to big, those studying the movements of the stars started to notice the same occasional phenomena.

Where there should be a star, there sometimes wasn’t. As they tracked the movements of the objects nearby, astronomers were sure that some massive body at the center of it all was affecting the pieces around it, but nothing showed up on their telescopes. They didn’t know what was going on with these invisible stars.

Turns out, as is often the case in scientific discovery, they just didn’t have enough information. More specifically, they didn’t know how to look at the stars. Over time, astronomers learned that stars emit different types of light based on their temperature, and some stars shine light that the human eye doesn’t naturally see.

Sometimes, you don’t have to look harder; you just have to look a little differently to see what’s going on.

083016_mbk_headshots_ado_kp001Back on Earth, here in Starkville, Mississippi, Ben Howland’s Mississippi State basketball team has an invisible star of its own. You can’t see it on the court. You can’t see it in the stat sheet. You can’t even see a picture of it – not a game picture, anyway.

But if you look with a different lens, you can clearly see the presence of Abdul Ado by the way he affects the players around him. The 6’11” freshman forward from Tennessee, by way of being born in Nigeria, is sitting out this season due to issues with his transcripts, but that hasn’t stopped him from having an impact on his team.

After acing his classes with a 4.0 GPA in the fall, Ado was allowed to start practicing with the team in December. It’s no coincidence that Howland thinks the practices have improved in quality since that time.

“It’s made our team better,” he said.

Ado has made that impact through a few different avenues. Surely, his great size and talent are a big part of it, providing his teammates with capable competition in practice. But his attitude and approach, those around him say, are what set him apart.

“The thing that’s special about him is he’s such a great competitor,” Howland said. “Ask our players. Please, ask our guys.”

If you insist.

“He just brings it every day,” freshman Mario Kegler confirmed when asked. “He’s different. He has a motor every day. He comes to practice ready to play.”

Consider the claim now peer-reviewed.

“I mean,” Howland finished, “it’s ridiculous how hard he plays.”

As Ado got more and more into the swing of things after returning to the floor, his role in practice increased. By the time MSU reached SEC play, the freshman was helping to simulate State’s opponents as well as he could, and it was working. The Bulldogs went on a three-game win streak in early January, and behind it all, Ado was in practice helping his team prepare. Even when MSU lost to Kentucky last week, they did so in impressive fashion, playing far better against one of the country’s biggest and most talented teams.

Then, in practice between that mid-week game and the following Saturday’s match-up on the road at Tennessee, Howland let Ado rest. The freshman wasn’t a part of the preparation as they practiced how to defend and attack the Vols.

On Saturday, MSU played perhaps its worst game of the year and ended up losing to Tennessee 91-74, largely because of a lack of defensive effort and intensity.

“I made a mistake,” Howland told reporters before practice the following Monday, “and I can’t ever do that again for the rest of the year … Today, he’s not coming out. Someone’s gonna have to deal with him all day long. That makes you better.”

screen-shot-2017-01-26-at-10-42-49-amThat afternoon, Howland put his team through one of the toughest practices of the season, with Ado literally at the center of it. On Wednesday, MSU blew out SEC foe Missouri 89-74 in The Hump, based largely on a defensive intensity reminiscent of State’s three-game win streak.

Correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, but it’s fair to say that, once again, Ado’s invisible presence was felt.

“He never comes out now,” Howland said after Wednesday night’s win. “You’re not coming out. Our fives are gonna have to deal with him. When we’re going through their stuff, preparing for another team, he’s always on offense. When we’re working on our stuff offensively, he’s always on defense. He just makes it really hard. He makes everybody better out there.”

It’s not a principle that’s new to Howland, of course. He’s seen it happen time and again in his long and successful coaching career, and it was one of the most important factors in his Final Four appearances.

Howland watched current NBA All-Star and one-time UCLA freshman Russell Westbrook improve on a daily basis by going against Aaron Afflalo and Darren Collison in practice, two outstanding professional players in their own right. He saw the same for Collison in school when he had to face Jordan Farmar in practice, a future NBA Champion with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“The best players I’ve coached, the best teams I’ve had, are when guys are really competing against each other and really trying to take it at each other between those lines,” Howland said. “You’re talking about players over the years competing against one another. That’s how you get better. That’s what we’ve gotta have every day out there. That’s why getting Abdul back in practice [is so important].”

Iron, as it is said, sharpens iron.

Ado won’t get a chance to show his mettle in a game until next season, but he’s already considered the best rebounder on the team, the most physical presence in the paint and one of the most important pieces of what Howland is building in Starkville. He can score, he can defend, he can block and he can rebound. Most importantly, he competes, and even from behind the scenes, he makes his team better.

Invisible stars can be seen. You just have to know how to look for them.

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Lifetime Of Struggle, Opportunity Guide Schnider Herard’s Path To College Basketball

Fifteen years old, standing six feet and nine inches tall, Schnider Herard stepped off his airplane and onto American ground for the first time. The Haitian teenager was wearing dress pants, an old jacket and older shoes. At the luggage pickup in the Dallas airport, he waited for a suitcase holding all the belongings he had left to his name: an extra pair of socks and underwear.

Moments after retrieving the suitcase, two men approached him.

“Schnider?” one of them asked.

Herard nodded his head. He didn’t speak English, but the nervous nod was a sufficient reply. Yes, he was Schnider.

He followed the two men to their car as they tried to talk to him, each attempt as fruitless as the last. Once on the road, they used an iPhone to try some translations, first in French, then in Creole. Again, despite their best efforts, communication seemed impossible. Not sure what else to do, they decided they’d figure something out when they got home and just turned on the radio.

“Justin Bieber?” Herard asked.

Caught by surprise, both men turned to look, and found the beanpole teenager smiling. He didn’t speak the language, but Herard knew American music.

“Those were the first words he said to me,” Derrick Shelby now recalls with a laugh. “’Justin Bieber’ … Music opened him up. I remember that day like it was yesterday.”

screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-10-05-30-amShelby, now Herard’s legal guardian, is the Director of Sales for the IT firm Zigatta in Frisco, Texas. The man once at a loss for how to communicate with the tall kid from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, ended up with a surrogate son because of a passion for basketball and a devotion to his faith.

Shortly after an earthquake of enormous magnitude rocked the island country in 2010, Shelby met a Haitian man named Pierre – a former basketball player at a small college in Tennessee – who was using basketball as a way to reach out and help the less fortunate youth of his home country.

After they met, Shelby began donating shoes, clothes and basketball uniforms he had through his work with youth basketball in the Dallas area so they could be provided to kids in Haiti through the man’s mission service. In 2012, the benefactor was asked to take his kindness a step further. Several steps further.

“Would you like to sponsor a kid?” he was asked.

“That’s what I’m doing, isn’t it?” Shelby replied. “I’m sending all this stuff over, I’m sponsoring all of them.”

No, Pierre told him. This request was a bit more involved. Shelby was being asked to have one of those kids come live with he and his family in Dallas.

“I said, man, are you crazy? My wife will kill me.”

But then Pierre told Shelby about Herard. He told Shelby what a good kid Herard was, and expressed that this could be a chance to very literally save Herard’s life. Living in the worst neighborhood of what was one of the most dangerous cities in the world, if Herard didn’t get out then, he never would. And if he did get out, he had a chance to make something of the opportunity; a chance to change his own life and those of his family’s.

Herard, far left, at high school prom

Herard, far left, at senior prom

Eventually, Shelby was convinced, and on August 6, 2012, he and his friend George drove to the airport in Dallas to meet Herard and take him to his new home. Much like that first day, the ensuing months and even years were hard, both for Herard and for the Shelby family. But the decision led to the most rewarding experience any involved would ever have.

When Herard started his ninth grade year at McKinney Boyd High School that fall, he was reading English at what equated to roughly a third-to-fourth-grade level. His native tongue was excellent, of course, and he very easily earned the French Award later in high school, but he was up against considerable odds in an English-speaking world. As a sophomore, Herard transferred to Prestonwood Christian Academy, a move that went on to become an important piece of his growth as a student, as a man and in his Christian faith as he found his way in his new home and country.

For three years, in addition to going to school all day, Herard went to tutoring four nights a week where he intensively studied the English language and made attempts to master his courses in school. He studied even more at home. Piece by piece, week by week, improvements came. Before long, he was unrecognizable in appearance, speech and confidence from the fifteen-year-old who first stepped off the plane in 2012.

Shelby has rarely been prouder than the day in 2016 when he watched Herard walk across the stage and get his diploma, graduating high school with a 3.1 GPA just four years after arriving in America with no more knowledge of the English language than a couple Justin Bieber and Chris Brown lyrics.

“I’m still in contact with my ESL teacher from freshman year,” Herard says now. “She was great. She helped me so much.”

“He worked,” Shelby said. “He put the work in. He really did. It’s paid off for him, because he now has a chance to get his education at a phenomenal college and make a difference. A lot of family and friends have poured into Schnider and we are so proud of the young man that he has become.”

The college education Herard is able to receive now comes largely because, in addition to learning math, science and English in Texas, Herard also learned about the game of basketball. As a kid in Haiti, soccer was, like that of most other kids, his athletic event of choice. Herard still calls soccer his love (and he and Shelby’s son have spent hours battling on the TV screen in FIFA), but the environment of his new home in Dallas helped lead him to a new sport.

screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-10-07-01-amFilling out the group of five in their house, Shelby’s wife Fannie and their now-13-year-old son Noah were joined by not just one but two adoptive members of the family, as Herard was soon followed by another Haitian also in need of an opportunity – current Vanderbilt redshirt freshman forward Djery Baptiste.

Shelby, who coaches basketball in his spare time with a Nike EYBL program called Pro Skills, was the perfect fit for the two gigantic teenagers in need of an outlet and a way to get involved in the culture and community.

In ninth grade, Herard played his first season of organized basketball. Those first months, Herard confesses, he was pretty bad. But having grown to 6’10” by the following summer, the potential was very clearly there, and in fact, it was in the months after his freshman year that Herard got his first scholarship offer. It was from Mississippi State.

By the time Herard was ready to make a decision a few years later on where to go to school, not only had MSU hired an entirely new coaching staff, but the teenager from Port-au-Prince had become a three-time first-team all-state forward, won three state championships, scored 1,000 points and been on the receiving end of 34 more scholarship offers after being named a four-star recruit and one of the best 100 players in the country. His collegiate options were many, but ultimately, the first school to offer Herard was the last choice he made. He wanted to be a Bulldog.

“Credit to Mississippi State, no college wanted him more or worked harder than Mississippi State,” Shelby said. “Nobody worked harder than [assistant coach] Ernie Ziegler and [head coach] Ben Howland. We’ve been there now half a year, and every single thing that Ben Howland and Ernie Ziegler told me they were going to do for that kid, they have done. And believe me, that doesn’t always happen. Everything they’ve told me has come true.”

Now, Herard is a starting forward in the SEC. This summer, he flew to Italy for two weeks as MSU went on a four-game preseason tour and he walked the streets of Florence and Rome and the Vatican City signing autographs and posing for pictures.

All of this happening for someone who shouldn’t even be here. And Herard isn’t one of those people who “shouldn’t be” somewhere because they once almost dropped out of school, or got caught stealing candy bars, or just weren’t a highly-recruited prospect. No, Herard really shouldn’t be here. Or anywhere, for that matter.

Herard in 2015 with his aunt, sister and cousin, reunited in the U.S. for the first time in years

Herard in 2015 with his aunt, sister and cousin, reunited in the U.S. for the first time in years

Daily life was hard by the time he was a teenager, but things were a easier for at least a little while when he was a young kid, spending the school year with his dad and then going to live with his mom in the summers. Even now, Herard still considers himself a mama’s boy. But one morning during the school year in 2007, when Herard was 10, he woke up to the news that around midnight his pregnant mother had unexpectedly gone into labor. Her home was a long distance from the nearest hospital, and by the time she had arrived, it was too late. She died giving birth at the age of 34.

“That’s the reason why I chose the number 34 for my jersey,” Herard said. “I was really close to her. I always felt comfortable when I was around her. I always wanted to spend more time with her.”

Left without his mother at such a young age, Herard’s aunt and grandmother stepped in to raise him.

In 2010, not just his life was disrupted, but the earth itself was ripped apart. On January 12, a catastrophic earthquake that the country is still recovering from rocked Haiti, its epicenter located 15 miles west of Port-au-Prince.

As the ground stopped shaking, all Herard saw was smoke. All he heard were screams. When the dust settled and he could survey the damage, he discovered that his neighborhood had been demolished. Herard’s world had very literally crumbled around him as nearly every single building around had collapsed – all except the one he was in.

Dazed, Herard left the building and began the search not for answers to what had happened, but for the location and safety of his family members. Miraculously, they were unharmed and were able to find each other on the upended streets strewn with rubble, injured survivors, and the bodies of those not fortunate enough to survive.

Tragedy and hardship had once again left their marks on Herard’s life.

So, when other freshmen across America grew frustrated in their struggles to find their way onto the court in college this year, Herard – the only member of his family to go to college – didn’t think for a moment about joining them. When he was finally inserted into the starting lineup at MSU two weeks ago, Herard was proud not just of his ability, but of his survival.

“That was awesome to see myself in the lineup. That means so much,” Herard said. “But coming off the bench, I’m cool with that, too. Four or five years before that, I was never thinking I’d be here. Even if I was the 10th man on the team, I’d still be fine. I’m truly blessed to be here.”

Of course, Herard becoming the 10th man any time soon is unlikely. Dropping around 40 pounds since he got to campus in June (his weight in high school grew quickly when he discovered fast food, burritos and pizza), Herard is playing at a trim-for-his-size 240 pounds and has become a breakout player for the Bulldogs.

“He’s really done a good job since his arrival back in June,” Howland said. “It’s such a huge jump. It’s him learning to play … When you don’t grow up playing in fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth grade, you don’t have those experiences with basketball. It’s tougher. You’ve got a lot to learn, but you’re still working on stuff that other kids already know. But on the flipside, the ceiling for kids like that is sometimes a lot higher because of that fact.”

screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-10-05-04-amTo reach that ceiling, Herard is once again putting in extra time. Just as his daily tutoring sessions in high school helped him with classes, his extra cardio in the early mornings and unending free throws in the late afternoon have helped him blossom into one of the SEC’s best young forwards.

The breakout moment came last Saturday when Herard’s 16 points, four rebounds, 6-of-8 free throw shooting and disrupting presence in the paint helped lift MSU to one of its biggest wins of the season, upsetting Texas A&M in Starkville.

“Schnider is playing great,” senior point guard I.J. Ready said. “I think the game is slowing down for him. And of course, we’re feeding him and have a lot of confidence in him. When the time came, he responded very well.”

Responding well has been a habit of Herard’s.

If his progress continues, Herard’s career is likely not only to blossom at MSU, but to grow into a professional future with resources and luxuries he could hardly have dreamed of as a kid. But even if that doesn’t happen, even if he never touches a basketball again, Herard has already accomplished the near-impossible, has already survived disaster and has already emerged from the rubble with the strength to succeed and the heart to enjoy and appreciate the life he’s been given.

“Basketball can come and go,” Shelby said, “and no matter what, that’s my son. Basketball is temporary. But he’s going to get an education that can not just change his life, but change his family’s life over in Haiti.”

Very certainly, Schnider Herard’s life has already changed a very great deal in a very short time. His unexpected chance has opened the door to even more unexpected opportunities in his new world.

“So far, so good,” Herard said with a smile.

Pretty good, indeed.

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New Look Lineup Paying Off For Howland

So, things happened kind of fast for Ben Howland. On January 3, his team opened SEC play by losing by 10 points to Alabama at home. Then, in a span of three days, his Mississippi State team scored 179 points in two games, beating LSU and Arkansas both on the road by a combined 23 points. One week, January 3-10, separated the beginning and end of that three-game stretch, but to watch them play, it‘s as if years have gone by. Or months, at least.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-33-40-amCredit the players for their resiliency and talent, then credit Howland for avoiding the stubbornness that can often plague head coaches in any sport. Over the course of a couple practices, Howland totally revamped his starting lineup, leading to a six-day turnaround for his Bulldogs.

Of course, it’s the same roster Howland had in that first game against Alabama, but changes in how he used that roster paid off very quickly. Now, MSU did well in the non-conference schedule, finishing that portion of the year with a 9-3 record. Things weren’t going poorly. But a new lineup helped move the needle a lot closer to the “great” end.

When MSU took the floor against LSU in Baton Rouge on Saturday, the senior point guard wasn’t in the lineup. Neither was the team’s sharpshooting freshman guard. Nor, either, was the recently-returned sophomore guard who had earned a start in just his second game back.

The starting five were, 1-5, freshman point guard Lamar Peters, sophomore guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (of course), freshman guard/forward Mario Kegler (who had been at the four), sophomore forward Aric Holman (who had been at the five) and freshman forward Schnider Herard.

Or, to put it in different terms, they were 6’0”, 6’4”, 6’7”, 6’10” and 6’10”.

“I just thought, in terms of our size, it would get us off to hopefully a better start on the backboards, which has been an Achilles heel all season,” Howland later said.

And it did work. It worked well, as a matter of fact.

“It was easier to rebound,” Holman confirmed.

Said Howland, “It helps us to be bigger, especially at the onset of games when we’re trying to establish ourselves rebounding.”

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-34-15-amThe benefits have extended beyond rebounding, though. That lineup has been troublesome for opponents and advantageous for MSU, but it’s not just the length. As Howland pointed out to reporters, it puts every player at their natural position. Holman is a tall guy, but he’s more suited to play the four, where his athleticism and shooting ability can be highlighted on offense and his shot blocking ability can be best utilized on defense. Kegler, too, is a sizable human, but his talent is more naturally suited to the three, where his ball skills both on the dribble and as a passer can be used with more frequency.

Then the quick-footed Peters and the gigantic-footed Herard complement each other well at the one and five, respectively. Weatherspoon, of course, seems to be good no matter where he plays on the floor, but the two guard is his preferred locale.

“It helps to play Aric, Mario and Q all at their natural positions,” Howland said.

What it also helps are the options for substitutions off the bench. Senior point guard I.J. Ready took the change in stride (“At this point, I just want to win,” he said), and it’s his reliability that helps tie this whole thing together. With such a young lineup on the floor, Ready is the man who can come in to help get the game going in the right direction if things start to falter. And, as Howland likes to do, Ready can be on the floor at the same time as Peters, helping transition the lineup from long and strong to quick and dangerous with the blow of a whistle.

With the right subs, Howland can adjust to just about any moment. Need leadership to pull things back together, or a reliable late-game ball handler and free throw shooter? Send in Ready. Need a spark behind the arc or on the offensive glass? Enter the sharpshooting freshman Tyson Carter. Need some energy and athleticism? Xavian Stapleton. Hard minutes in the paint? E.J. Datcher.

And so on and so forth; Howland, in a rather short period of time, has set himself up to have an answer for just about everything.

“Coach Howland does a great job subbing and utilizing all his weapons at the right time,” Ready said. “The lineup we started off with [against LSU] was great.”

MSU is still a young team, certainly, and their lack of depth in some positions remains a concern for Howland. However, this group has grown up fast. It’s rare to have a new-look team in the middle of the season, but the Bulldogs have pulled it off.

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Talent, Development Shine For Schaefer’s No. 5 Bulldogs

This is the best team Vic Schaefer has had at Mississippi State, and sitting at 15-0 after blowing out 11-3 LSU to start SEC play, this might also be the best coaching job of his five years in Starkville. His Bulldogs are No. 5 in the country, and that ranking may very well get even better when the new polls come out this week.

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-10-53-41-amWhat’s impressive about the job he’s done to this point – beyond the tough non-conference slate, the big numbers and, you know, the undefeated record – is that he’s done so with virtually the same roster he had last year. Coming into the season, fresh off an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen, the 2016-17 campaign set up to be far more about development than addition.

After several years of addition by, well, addition, the stars of this year’s team are the same stars of last year’s team. The only difference is that they’re 12 months older. It’s in those 12 months that Schaefer did his work, and he continues to do so as the train of this season gains more and more steam.

The obvious answer to “What makes MSU good?” is the talent. All-SEC players like Victoria Vivians, Morgan William and Dominique Dillingham are certainly vital. Having 6’7” Teaira McCowan and 6’5” Chinwe Okorie in the post goes a long way, too. Literally.

But the little things are what have moved the needle from good to great for this top-five squad. Development is in the little things. Okorie and Vivians, who combined for 41 points and 18 rebounds against LSU Sunday, are perfect examples. Both have natural talents and abilities, certainly, but honing those skills has been of immense value.

Okorie, now a senior, has always been one of the most physically intimidating players on MSU’s roster, and while she’s certainly had a successful career, her ceiling was never quite reached earlier in her time at State.

“I have to answer when I’m on the Bulldog tour, ‘Hey, how’s your big girl? Is she gonna be able to make a layup this year?’ Schaefer shared, only half-jokingly.

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-10-56-03-amNow, it turns out, she can. Okorie, who also leads the team in rebounds, is shooting over 60 percent from the field and is one of only three players on the team averaging double-figures scoring. Beside her in the post, McCowan has made strides from freshman year to sophomore, learning how to use her body on both ends of the floor.

The development in the frontcourt has made for a nice pairing with the junior point guard William, the team’s floor general and second-leading scorer.

“Those are the bookends to our success,” Schaefer said. “The development of our bigs inside really makes it nice for our guard play, no question about it.”

For Vivians, the big step has been growing into her abilities. She’s athletic, she can shoot and she’s got length. That much got her pretty far. But now, she’s perfecting the finer points of the game.

She’s learned how to properly select and get set for shots.

“With Tori, it’s just a matter of her feet,” Schaefer said. “Tori didn’t take a bad shot today. She was on balance.”

She’s learned to see the floor on things as seemingly little as an in-bounds pass.

“We worked on that for 10 minutes in shootaround,” Schaefer shared.

She’s setting strong screens, she’s perfecting her timing on when to make cuts, and most importantly – this is the big one – she’s become passionate on defense.

“You can tell on the defensive end, it means something to her,” Schaefer finished. “I think that’s the difference on our team right now, that she’s really dialed in on both ends.“

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-10-54-36-amVivians is second on the team in steals (24), first in rebounds by guards (4.2 per game) and third in assists with a total 24. On that offensive side, Vivians’s 217 shots are more than double the next closest on the team, and only one other player (Okorie) has even attempted 100. Impressively given the volume of attempts, Vivians is shooting 43.3 percent, averaging 16.7 points per game.

Each game is just another display of her developed talents. Against LSU, for example, Vivians totaled 24 points, 12 rebounds and three steals as she led her team to a blowout 74-48 victory.

“That’s how an All-American is supposed to play,” Schaefer said with a smile afterward.

The final piece to MSU’s success has been, to make it simple, everybody else on the team not already mentioned. It’s been Roshunda Johnson, who stepped up in the place of the injured Dillingham for a stretch in December and is now the team’s fourth-leading scorer.

It’s backup point guard Jazzmun Holmes having just two fewer assists (57) than the starter (59, William), despite playing roughly half as many minutes. It’s Blair Schaefer playing some of the toughest minutes on the team. It’s Breanna Richardson’s wily veteran ways in the post.

In short, it’s a full roster of talent, not just a top-heavy group dependent on its stars.

“We’re one of the few teams in the country that has depth right now, knock on wood,” Schaefer said. “That’s really shone in our streak right now.”

There’s more to it than all that, of course. But as Schaefer’s club continues its climb to the top of ladder in college basketball, his coaching job, and that of his staff, cannot be emphasized enough.

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Weatherspoon Dominating, Bulldogs Rolling As SEC Play Nears

Quinndary Weatherspoon has 52 points in his last two games combined. Despite a wrist injury that, for about one week, appeared to have ended his season, the sophomore is averaging 19.1 points per game as his Mississippi State basketball team finished non-conference play with a blowout victory over UMKC last night.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-33-40-amLast night, that is, in a game where Weatherspoon dropped 25 points in only 25 minutes, drilled five three-pointers and shot 60 percent from the floor.

Weatherspoon is scoring in bunches, and yet, after the game, it was a single assist by his star guard that head coach Ben Howland was most anxious to discuss.

“He had a bounce pass tonight to I.J. [Ready] in transition that was phenomenal,” Howland bragged. “That’s what I’m excited about.”

Early in the second half, a missed UMKC shot bounced perfectly off the backboard and into Weatherspoon’s possession. Ball in hand, he quickly turned and took a step toward midcourt to look for his next move. Senior point guard I.J. Ready had already sprinted out ahead of the transition, being guarded one-on-one as he neared the opposing three-point line. When Ready saw that Weatherspoon was coming, he started to curl out toward the sideline in an attempt to clear the area for yet another Weatherspoon basket.

Instead, Weatherspoon made another call.

“He said, ‘Nooooo!’” Ready remembered his teammate yelling.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-32-01-amSo Ready cut back in toward the basket and Weatherspoon, from halfcourt, launched a one-handed pass through the tiniest of windows. Guarding Ready and with his back to Weatherspoon, the defender didn’t even see the ball sail into the small area of open space between his outstretched arm and size-something shoe, bouncing with perfect spin in the paint to curl right into Ready’s hands, where the steady senior dropped it into the basket for two points and one of Weatherspoon’s four assists on the night.

“That’s probably the best pass I’ve seen him make in a while,” Ready said.

The pass was so good, in fact, and the momentum it fostered was so strong, it forced UMKC to call a timeout to try and calm the team.

Said Howland, “That pass had to be perfect to get right through the only way it could get through. It was phenomenal and it gave us a great jolt.”

And that pass, more than the 25 points or five three-pointers, it what has Howland so excited about Weatherspoon. That, and his seven rebounds, his four assists and, particularly, his strong defense. Injured wrist and all, Weatherspoon is still the best defender on the team.

Weatherspoon is, fairly literally, doing it all, much to the betterment of his team. His defense doesn’t just help create opportunities for his own scoring, but it advances the game for the entire MSU roster.

“He just brings energy on defense,” sophomore Xavian Stapleton said. “We get stops, we score.”

That easy, apparently. And lately, it’s sort of looked that easy. The Bulldogs are 6-1 since Thanksgiving break ended, and they’ve won five games in the month of December, despite a 10-day break for final exams. They’ve won their last three games by an average of 24 points.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-34-15-amHowland doesn’t think they’re peaking – he still thinks they have a long way to go – but he can see clear improvement as MSU finishes the first half of the season.

It’s not just Weatherspoon either, though he’s certainly been great. Stapleton returning from injury, even in limited minutes, has been a spark for the team with his defense, rebounding and energy. Freshman point guard Lamar Peters has responded to suspension with previously unseen gusto. Freshman guard Tyson Carter quietly, as is his nature, is hitting deep threes and racking up steals. Sophomore forward Aric Holman is dominating the paint, while freshman forward Schnider Herard is figuring out just how to use his big frame to his advantage.

As individuals continue to improve, so has the team, now sitting at 9-3 and anticipating the start of SEC play.

“It’s a great vibe,” Ready said. “We set those expectations when the young guys got here. We weren’t settling for less. We really wanted to be undefeated going into conference. That’s how we looked at it. But being in this position, I think it’s the best start since I’ve been here.”

It certainly appears to be that, and Ready, like most, gives a great deal of the credit to Weatherspoon. The jump the Mississippi native has made from freshman to sophomore year is hard to miss, as Ready, Stapleton and Howland each said this season is the best he’s ever been. He’s confident, he’s in control, and he refuses to accept any credit or praise.

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-10-32-54-amOf course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t many willing to heap it on him anyway.

“He’s a heck of an offensive talent,” UMKC head coach Kareem Richardson said after Thursday’s game. “He plays at such a really calm pace. He doesn’t get sped up, doesn’t get frustrated much and kind of has that old-hand, calm pace about his game.”

Said Howland, “He creates a lot with his athleticism. He’s really, really playing well. He’s great to coach. He’s phenomenal in terms of being coachable. It’s nice having your best player also be maybe your most coachable player.

“I would think that everybody’s gearing their defense toward him,” he continued. “And again, it’s not about the points he scores. It’s about him leading us to the big ‘W,’ and you do it in a lot of different ways. You do it No. 1 with your defense and your rebounding, then he does it tonight with his passing. For him to be the best he can be, it’s an area he has to continue to grow in, making plays for others.”

Making plays for others, in addition to making plays for himself, has helped MSU to its most promising start in years. Weatherspoon gets the headlines, and deservedly so, for his performances. But his success is just an indicator of the success the entire team is having.

“We’re getting better,” Howland said. “We’re improving, and that’s exciting. That’s what you want as a coach.”

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Mullen, MSU Aiming For Momentum In St. Pete

Bowl games are strange in the way that they don’t technically have much meaning or bearing on the individual seasons of the teams involved, but they have the ability to make a world of difference in ways that don’t show until months after the event. Momentum isn’t tangible or measurable, but to coaches and their teams, it can be of severe importance and have tremendous impact.

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-13-39-pmMississippi State is on the good side of such a momentum swing right now following a 55-20 blowout of Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl to finish the regular season, and it’s because of that win that the Bulldogs are in St. Petersburg right now for a bowl game. A bowl game, head coach Dan Mullen says, that’s an opportunity to multiply the momentum and keep it going between now and the beginning of the 2017 season. Now coaching in his seventh postseason at MSU, Mullen is quick to share how meaningful these games are, despite what some might consider to be something of a lack of meaning.

“It’s huge,” he said. “We don’t play again until September. I don’t want to be miserable for nine months.”

What happens between now and September will go a long way in determining what happens when 2017, and what happens on December 26 against Miami (Ohio) will go an equally long way in determining what happens during that long offseason.

“You want to finish on that win,” Mullen said. “A win in a bowl game, when you show back up in January, you’re excited to get going again. I think it can really energize you to get going again.”

unnamed-1The best example from Mullen’s tenure may also be the most apt comparison for the current trajectory of the program. When MSU had its historic run to No. 1 in the 2014 season, it came on the heels of a winning streak and a bowl game blowout victory to end the 2013 campaign. Coaches and players said then, as reported on this blog, that they felt the finish to the season set them up for big things in 2014.

Consider the similarities between the 2013 season and the one MSU is currently having in 2016. Both teams entered the month of November with no one expecting them to make a bowl. Both teams were very young but started clicking as the season went on. Both teams featured sophomores at quarterback and running back who looked like future stars. Both teams were stocked with talented but yet-to-be fully developed youth on defense. Both teams had injuries, low moments and even occasional field goal kicking issues.

And both teams got the Golden Egg back.

In 2013, MSU dominated Rice in the Liberty Bowl, then carried their momentum all the way to No. 1 in the country in 2014.

Which brings us back to December 26, the St. Petersburg Bowl and a young MSU team ready to blossom in 2017. Will they finish 2016 in a similar fashion? Make a similar jump into national conversation in 2017? Asked about the comparison, Mullen didn’t concede too much, but he did confess, alittle momentum would go a long way.

“If we win this game,” Mullen said, “we’ll see. Hopefully that enthusiasm carries us into offseason conditioning and spring practice. We’ve got a lot of good young players on this team, a lot of good young talent. We’re excited about out future.”

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The A-Train: On The Making, The Legend And The Future Of Aeris Williams

THE MAKING

Sitting in his office in the field house at West Point High School last week, Chris Chambless got a call from his wife – Aeris Williams had just walked in the door and Chambless had better finish work soon and come home to see him. The three-time State Championship-winning head coach compares his relationship with the former Green Wave star and current Mississippi State sophomore running back to that of a father and a son, saying his children even consider Williams to be a brother.

“To this day, when he comes in, it’s like he’s coming back into his own house, going to the refrigerator, getting something to drink, hugging everybody’s neck and throwing the ball with the kids.”

Williams, still at WPHS, at a high school camp at MSU (Credit: Davey Miller)

Williams, still at WPHS, at a high school camp at MSU
(Credit: Davey Miller)

With a quiet, unassuming and exceedingly loyal personality, Williams is loved deeply by those who he is close to, an emotion he returns many times over. A yes sir, no ma’am, please-and-thank-you kind of guy, you wouldn’t know just by talking to the humble and reserved kid from West Point that he was a budding star running back in the SEC.

You also wouldn’t know by watching him run up and down the field on Saturdays that he was never even supposed to be able to play football after an accident as a toddler. When his grandparents’ house caught on fire when he was two years old, Williams watched from the other side of the road, struggling to break free of his grandfather’s grip and join his mother in trying to do something for their burning home. He finally slipped through the hands of the man trying to protect him and sprinted onto the road, heading for his mom. He was too focused on reaching her to see the car hurtling down the street, and the driver was caught with too little time to stop or swerve.

The car slammed into Williams’s two-year-old body, sending him flying into the air and across the pavement. Discovering three broken bones in his legs, Williams’s mother was told her son would never be able to play sports.

Mark that doctor down as the first person to be wrong about Aeris Williams. The star running back never had it easy, and that’s what shaped him into the man he became.

“He has great character. He’s a hard worker. A great leader. All the attributes that make a good person, he has,” Chambless said. “Aeris, even on a bad day, he’ll try to lift someone else up. He wasn’t ever looking for somebody to lift him up. He was always trying to help somebody and he still does.”

Even now, Williams makes a point to go back and visit his old team, speaking with individuals and the entire group to offer encouragement, inspiration or a word of tough love, if it’s needed. He exchanges the same with Chambless, too, as he’s spent many nights sitting on the couch in his old coach’s living room just talking about life.

“He’s got a family here in West Point for life,” Chambless said.

The feeling, for Williams, is mutual.

“The city means a lot to me because they’re behind me, pushing me,” he said. “Every time I get on Facebook, it’s somebody telling me how proud they are. I just thank West Point … The city is behind me, I’m telling you.”

Credit: Davey Miller

Credit: Davey Miller

It’s in that city, raised by a loving mother and surrounded by a supportive community, that Williams developed the attributes responsible for his success now. It’s cliché and perhaps even boring to say Williams is a great running back because of his strong work ethic, but any who have been around him immediately point to his dedication as the reason for his success.

“As good of a player as he is,” WPHS offensive line coach Casey Welch said, “probably what people don’t see is that, with us, he was the hardest working guy. You would finish workouts and look up, and him and two or three other guys would be pulling tires without us even out there. He always wanted to do more. He was always going to go above and beyond what any coach asked him to do.”

In fact, it was moments like those, more than the impressive running ability he displayed in games, that made MSU head coach Dan Mullen so eager to recruit and sign Williams nearly three years ago.

“That was something that really separated him from a lot of people,” Mullen said. “The type of person he was off the field was really special.”

Team captain and senior wideout Fred Ross, as he nears the finish of his collegiate career, is the leading receiver in Mississippi State history, and within the program, he’s respected most for the extra work he puts into developing himself. Spending as many hours at the team’s facility as he does, no one is better placed than Ross to see who puts in additional time on their own and who doesn’t.

“I remember [Williams] came here his freshman year and he worked so hard,” Ross said. “I work out a lot, just by myself … but every time time I’m out there, Aeris is out there. I could be walking into the facility to get some clothes out of my locker to go work out, and Aeris will already be out there in the sand pit working hard.”

Williams was never supposed to be able to do any of this, and that’s why he’s so dedicated to doing as much as he can.

THE LEGEND

Anyone who was in West Point, Mississippi during a certain time had an Aeris Williams moment at some point. Granted, there aren’t that many people in the small east Mississippi town compared to the homes of many of the game’s legends, but in their corner of the Golden Triangle, West Point High School football is everything, and for a handful of years, Aeris Williams was West Point football.

Some saw it coming before he even finished middle school, while others had the realization later in his career, but everyone in the town, from the Mayor to the coaching staff and the newspapers to the fans, had their moment – their realization of just what it was that they were witnessing.

unnamed

Credit: Davey Miller

As great a person as he was off the field to those who took the time to get to know him, Williams’s immense talent between the lines was quickly realized by all who saw him, friend, foe or stranger.

The exact timing of when those following his career discovered his ability varies from person to person, but the moment of his debut, his first call to action, goes back to his freshman year. Like most high schools, West Point had its varsity football team of 10th-12th graders, then also had a ninth grade team made up exclusively of freshmen that played a separate game against the ninth graders of the other schools every week. The physical difference between a freshman and a senior is much greater in high school than it is in college, and the separation gives the younger players a chance to play, something they would never be able to do if they were competing with the older kids.

Almost never, that is. In 2010, the Green Wave had an injury to their starting running back, a position where they were already thin, and they had to do something exceedingly rare at WPHS – they promoted a ninth grader to the varsity team mid-season.

Williams, of course, was that ninth grader. Playing against a strong Clarksdale team, he made his debut, running for over 100 yards and scoring two touchdowns as West Point eked out the victory and discovered a star had quietly been born.

“He did very well as a ninth grader against people his own age, but it’s hard to get them ready to play these guys two and three years older than they are,” Chambless explained. “We were able to squeak out a win, and it was because of him. I knew from that moment that we had somebody special.”

Following that first act, Williams’s legend grew as night by night over the next four years more and more people were witnesses to his talent.

Brandon Walker, in addition to his job as the managing editor of the West Point Daily Times Leader, was the substitute radio announcer for the team during Williams’ sophomore season. The Green Wave played Starkville High twice that year, once in the regular season and again in the playoffs. During the regular season matchup, Walker had his Aeris Williams Moment.

“There was a run, at some point during the game,” Walker remembered, “that he broke through the line, ran over a linebacker, did a spin move on the first safety and hurdled the second safety. It was like one of those videos you would see on YouTube. It was just a highlight that happened in front of you. I remember in real time thinking, ‘I will never forget what just happened.’ That’s when I knew this guy was special.”

In the second game against Starkville that year, Robbie Robinson had his turn. The current Mayor of West Point, Robinson has seen a lot of Green Wave football in his lifetime. He knows as well as anyone what it means to say that Williams stands among the greats in the pantheon of West Point’s legends.

“We’ve had a lot of good football players,” he said. “I knew he was special when I saw the Starkville game, I believe when he was a sophomore. He caught a touchdown pass in the back corner of the end zone. It was a leaping, acrobatic catch and I said, ‘This kid’s special.’ Doggone, it turned out he sure was.”

Williams celebrating with MSU teammates during their Egg Bowl victory

Williams celebrating with MSU teammates during their Egg Bowl victory

The Mayor was right. The legend grew and grew, and to hear those in West Point talk about Williams now, his tale has seemingly reached Paul Bunyan status, those in his small town remembering his feats and accomplishments as some of the greatest they’ve ever seen, rendering those who watched often incapable of describing his performances with anything short of awe.

In a rivalry game against nearby New Hope one Friday night in 2013, Chambless and his Green Wave found themselves in an offensive battle of fairly epic proportions, with 126 total points being scored by the end of the game. Welch was the offensive line coach that year, Williams’ senior season. Like his head coach, Welch had known since that game against Clarksdale three years prior how special a talent they had, but if indeed any doubters still existed, Williams’s performance against New Hope shut the door on those who had yet to buy in.

“Aeris carried it nearly 30 times that night for just a ridiculous amount of yards. Never once asked to come out. I know he had to be dog tired, but he never wanted to come out. You couldn’t wear him down,” Welch remembered. “I wish I had the numbers in front of me.”

Williams, by then committed to play for Mississippi State in college, led West Point to a 76-50 win as he ran the ball 23 times for 227 yards and five touchdowns. And that wasn’t even his career high.

By the end of his playing days in West Point, Williams had amassed 3,994 total yards on the ground. Rushing for 1,607 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior, he was named the Mississippi Association of Coaches 5A Offensive Player of the Year, was selected to the Clarion-Ledger Dandy Dozen, was picked the WCBI-TV Offensive Player of the Year, represented his state in the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star Game and was a nominee for the Under Armour All-American Bowl.

Whatever he would go on to do after high school, his legacy in West Point was cemented.

THE FUTURE

His nickname is The A-Train. It’s a moniker he was given in high school, and one that’s perfectly fitting for the former West Point star. His touchdown celebration, while it seems innocuous enough if one doesn’t know what to look for, is what they call cranking the train. It’s a West Point thing, fans of the Green Wave will explain, and like the tracks running through town, it’s been around far longer than Aeris Williams.

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-4-53-52-pmRaising one hand in the air and yanking the imaginary chain of an engine car’s horn is a sign that the train is rolling and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop it. When West Point gets going, so does the train, and during Williams’s four-year career, the train was a-rollin’ almost every Friday night.

“When I saw him start yanking that chain, cranking that train up,” Chambless said, “that’s one of the best feelings in the world as a coach on the sideline knowing you’ve got a guy that’s taking control.”

The celebration is one that Williams’s teammates at Mississippi State have picked up on, and when the sophomore tailback was running wild on Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl at the end of November, the MSU sideline could be seen on the TV broadcast cranking the train in celebration for each of Williams’s two touchdowns.

“We got a kick out of that as coaches at West Point,” said Welch, a former Mississippi State offensive lineman himself. “That made us feel good.”

With 191 yards on 25 carries, that Egg Bowl performance was the cap of a breakout stretch for Williams at MSU. It took two-and-a-half years of patiently waiting, working and preparing, a timespan Williams says now he very much needed, even if it was frustrating at the time.

Just as it had been so many years before as a ninth grader at West Point, Williams’s opportunity at MSU came when the starting running back in front of him got hurt. After getting no more than five carries in each of the first five games of the 2016 season, Williams got his shot in game six when he ran the ball 21 times against BYU, totaling a solid but not overly-noteworthy 82 yards. A few weeks later, Williams broke out.

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-4-54-53-pmAgainst what was then a Top-10 Texas A&M team, MSU coach Dan Mullen decided to give Williams the rock as many times as it took. His reward was watching the redshirt sophomore romp on the Aggie defense, racking up 140 yards and one touchdown on 24 carries.

Despite a limited role for half of the year, Williams ended up the team’s second leading rusher, his 656 yards more than doubling the total of the next-closest running back, as he averaged 5.2 yards per carry and found the endzone four times.

It took a little while, but now Williams is one of MSU’s brightest young stars and is all but cemented as the running back of the not-so-distant future for the Bulldogs.

“It was just a process,” he said, again declining to give himself too much credit.

He wasn’t lying, of course. It was a process, and one that included Williams having to learn just how much he didn’t know. In his words, he had to find himself as a football player.

“He would call and talk about struggling with pass protection and things like that,” Welch said. “The advanced offense that colleges run compared to us in high school – we weren’t a zone team. We were a block-down, kick-out where he knew what hole to hit as soon as we snapped the ball. I think it took him a little while to develop that patience.

“At that level,” he continued, “everybody who plays was the man on their high school team. We were just trying to talk to him and tell him, ‘Your time is coming. Just continue to work hard and be patient and do everything the coaches ask you to do.’”

So, he did exactly that. While he redshirted in 2014, as he saw exceedingly little time as a freshman in 2015, and as he waited on his chance as a sophomore in 2016, Williams was working on whatever his coaches gave him. He was developing his vision. He was memorizing the plays. Perhaps most importantly, he was learning how to block.

“When you get to the college level, it’s more than just running the ball,” he said. “You’ve got to learn how to block. I love blocking for my teammates because they love blocking for me … In high school, I didn’t do a lot of blocking, so I had to find myself there. With my cuts, I had to learn to keep my head up and have vision. You just have to find yourself. Once you find yourself and get that confidence, there ain’t no stopping you, I promise.”

Williams, quite clearly, has found himself, and with that self-discovery has come the quiet confidence of a force that considers itself to be unstoppable. The A-Train is back on the tracks.

screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-4-55-56-pmTalking to him now, one thing is clear: Aeris Williams doesn’t think things. He knows them. In interviews with reporters – when he can be coaxed into speaking publicly, that is – his answers to questions come in clearly declarative form. He speaks what he believes to be absolute truth and delivers his truths in an exceedingly matter-of-fact manner – even if it’s not about football or his faith or his family.

Why are you so confident in everything you say, he was asked?

“Because I’m not lying to you,” he quickly responded with a disbelieving chuckle, drawing laughs from the room of reporters surrounding him.

Among the topics he confidently expressed his feelings on, Williams discussed the future of MSU’s offense, and its backfield specifically, at length – a conversation coming as MSU neared the end of preparation for its bowl game in St. Petersburg.

While Williams was steadily working his way onto the field this fall, his quarterback and fellow sophomore Nick Fitzgerald led the Southeastern Conference in total offense, setting the classmates up as one of the conference’s and even the country’s most dynamic duos and dangerous running threats for the foreseeable future.

“Our years here,” Williams began in earnest, “I promise, for Mississippi State, the running game is looking great. I promise it’s bright for the future.”

In Starkville and to the Bulldogs who cheer for him, Williams’s legacy has just begun to be written. In West Point and to those in the city that raised him, his status as legend is already assured.

“To all of us here in West Point to see him have the year he had is very exciting for us,” Chambless said, “but at the same time, we’re his biggest fans no matter what. If he doesn’t step on the field, we’re his biggest fans and he knows that.”

However, Mayor Robinson added, “I think his career is just beginning.”

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SEC Commish Sankey Speaks At MSU Graduation, Offers Advice And Shares Experiences

If Greg Sankey ever pens a book on his professional successes, this story – the one he shared as the guest speaker at Mississippi State University’s commencement Friday night – is likely to be his first chapter. It may even be the title of the book: ‘The Restroom Near Gate A-26.’ Should make for a snazzy cover.

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-05-21-amNow the Commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, Sankey was the Commissioner of the Southland Conference back in 1997, and it was then, at the restroom near gate A-26 in the Atlanta-Hartsfield airport, that his life was turned around. In fact, it was quite literally knocked over.

The last thing Sankey remembers was becoming a bit lightheaded while in the restroom. His next memory is waking up on the floor of that restroom. The 32-year-old husband, father and Commissioner had an atrial fibrillation. After a handful of tests and visits with doctors, the reason for Sankey’s sudden collapse was clear.

“I was not living well,” he told the crowd Friday night.

In short, he was over-working himself and stretching himself far too thin, metaphorically, while he was very literally letting his body fall completely out of shape and good health.

In the months following that realization, Sankey began a search for truth that shaped the rest of his life. He met with professional after professional, friend after friend, authority after authority, and he asked them all the same questions about trying to find a balance between work and family.

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-05-00-amNothing clicked. But then Sankey happened across a book appropriately titled, ‘The Life You’ve Always Wanted’ by John Ortberg. A few chapters in, the man in search of answers read the two sentences that form the heart of his message today.

“A balanced lifestyle is not an adequate goal to which to devote our lives,” Sankey quoted the book as saying. “The problem with that goal is not that it is too difficult, but that it is too slight.”

Sankey’s prepared speech continued, “You see, balance implies we are two-dimensional, trying to balance work and family. Or pick two other aspects of your life and think about finding equilibrium between the two.

“But the reality I learned in the Atlanta airport is what Ortberg wrote is exactly right: a balanced lifestyle is not an adequate goal to which to devote my life. Instead, each of us has to recognize our multi-faceted existence.

“For me, I’m a son, a husband, a father. Some of you have watched the officiating in a game and wondered, who is the Commissioner? Well, that’s me. I’m also a friend, a neighbor, a person focused on how faith informs his life. I serve on the board of a non-profit organization working to provide fresh water to people around the globe.

“That’s eight different roles, and I’m just getting started. Balance, from my perspective, is best left to a seesaw on the playground. What then became important is what I valued, and how the values informed the principles by which I live.”

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-07-00-amSankey was speaking to all 1,370 December graduates of MSU on Friday night, and despite his background, his only references to sports were a couple jokes about cowbells I his intro and his self-deprecating crack about officiating. However, a few dozen of those 1,370 were student-athletes at Mississippi State, young men and women who were earning the degrees he was congratulating them on by virtue of the conference he runs.

Those people, perhaps better than many, understood the stress and the need for balance Sankey spoke so passionately about. They relate to the difficulties of trying to balance so many areas of their life at once. They know what it is to spend the same day trying to learn the diagram of a cell and the nuances of a cover two defense.

They know how many different worlds one must live in, trying to earn the approval of coaches, of teachers, of friends and maybe even of that cute guy or girl in their chemistry lab. If there’s time, of course.

They know the pressure of keeping their grades up not just so that they can play their sport, but so they can make their parents proud, so that many of them can be the first in their family to get a college education, so they can get a job when they graduate and so they can prove to themselves that they’re good enough, that they can do it.

This weekend, they did do it. They walked across the stage, they shook the President’s hand and they were given a diploma that’s technically just a piece of paper in a nice leather binder but is symbolic of the time and effort put in to reaching that place and realizing that life achievement.

As students in caps and gowns were walking onto the floor of Humphrey Coliseum as part of the processional Friday night, other students in helmets and shoulder pads were right across the street at MSU’s football facility preparing for State’s bowl game later this month. Head coach Dan Mullen’s team is 5-7, owners of a record not typically seen in the postseason. But for the same reason that 17 of his players were missing from practice to graduate, all 100-some-odd members of his team get to spend a week at the beach in late December.

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-04-02-amBecause MSU’s APR (Academic Progress Rate) was so high, MSU was one of a select few teams rewarded with the chance to continue their season.

“It teaches young people a lesson in life that football isn’t all we’re here for,” Mullen said. “We’re going to a bowl game because of academics, because of the work our guys have done … We’re getting to go to a bowl game because we had 17 guys graduate today. It’s one of the great lessons that guys in our program will learn in their entire career here. It was academics, it was off-the-field that got them rewarded with this trip this year.”

Their success is exemplary of the standard Sankey charged all 1,370 graduates to strive for – prioritize your life, live by your principles, and most importantly, make good decisions.

The Commissioner pulled out a laminated card on Friday night as he neared the end of his speech. Smaller than a playing card, he showed it to the audience, then read its contents. It’s a simple list of 10 components which guide his decision-making and, thus, guide his life.

  1. Live honorably
  2. Live a quiet life
  3. Live within my means
  4. Laugh often
  5. Make each day a masterpiece
  6. Mind my own business
  7. Be diligent in my work
  8. Associate with people who make me better and return the favor
  9. Order my life to limit exposure to temptation
  10. Be open to the needs of others

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-11-04-37-amIt’s easy for him to rattle off a list – with explanations for each provided – but Sankey knows there is great difficulty in applying any lesson to an indivudal life as it comes in everyday situations. And no matter how hard anyone tries, all are likely to have their own Restroom Near Gate A-26 moment at some point.

“But that’s the great thing about life,” Sankey told the coliseum full of new graduates. “It ought to scare you a little bit. Maybe every day. That’s how you make the masterpiece.”

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