Azusa Pacific's Little Big Man : Only 5-Foot-2, but Receiver Williams Is an Impact Player for Cougars : Colleges: After an inconspicuous high school career, he is tied for second in pass receptions and leads team in kickoff returns.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 5-foot-2 and 145 pounds, freshman receiver Derick Williams of Azusa Pacific is undoubtedly one of the shortest players in college football.

Maybe the shortest outside of a place-kicker or two.

But there is a lot more to the 18-year-old Williams than a lack of size. Just ask his coach at Azusa Pacific, Jim Milhon.

"He's a little, peanut-sized receiver but he knows how to play and catch the ball well," Milhon said. "Derick certainly can't play offensive guard or even fullback, but he can play wide receiver."

Williams is starting at wide receiver and is tied for second on the team in pass receptions with nine for 135 yards and a touchdown. He also leads the Cougars in kickoff returns with six for 90 yards.

Williams might have passed his biggest test on Azusa Pacific's first play from scrimmage in its season opener against Cal Lutheran on Sept. 8.

After catching a pass from quarterback Brian Hunt in the middle of the field, Williams received a thunderous hit from 6-0 and 240 linebacker Cary Caulfield of Cal Lutheran. Williams held on to the ball, got up and walked to the Cougar sideline where he proceeded to throw up.

Moments later, Azusa Pacific assistant Craig Pannell congratulated him, telling Williams he had just taken the biggest hit he will ever have to face.

Williams wound up catching four passes in the Cal Lutheran game, four the following week against Chico State and caught one pass last week against Occidental.

Not a bad way to start a college football career, especially when you consider that he didn't start or even catch a pass as a senior in high school at El Camino of Oceanside.

"We had one good receiver (Jerry Avery) and he did everything," Williams said. "There were two receivers who started over me and I would go in only to block. On running plays I would go in and on passing plays they would take me out."

For that matter, the rest of his high school career was nearly as inconspicuous.

After playing Pop Warner youth football as a freshman, Williams played tailback for the junior varsity team as a sophomore and junior. But he missed his first three games as a junior while recuperating from a broken hip that he suffered during spring practice.

Williams was switched to wide receiver as a senior, although he said he never received an opportunity to prove himself on the field. During the season, Williams said he had only one opportunity to catch a pass, but the quarterback threw the ball over his head.

"There was no way I could have caught it," he said.

His lack of playing time left him a little disillusioned about football, but he said it was his mother, Betty, who kept his spirits high.

"I just went through high school discouraged about things," he said. "I would come home saying I know I can play and I'd talk to my mom and she was the one who told me, 'Don't give up. Try it in college.' "

Williams had also been on the wrestling team for three years in high school and friends advised him to pursue that sport in college.

"They said I shouldn't go to Azusa because they don't have wrestling," he said. "They said I should go to Palomar (Community College in San Marcos). But I didn't want to because football is in my heart and I wanted to give football a try."

Williams wasn't exactly a prized recruit for Azusa Pacific. In fact, he wasn't recruited at all.

"We need to be honest and say we did not recruit Derick," Milhon said. "We recruited a player from his school (slotback Adam Savona) and he said he had these two other guys who were interested in coming here. Adam said one of the guys was a wide receiver but he was real small. Well, that was an understatement."

Although his mother was happy when Williams told her that he had been accepted to Azusa Pacific, she was more concerned about his education than whether or not he made it in football.

"I really didn't have a football career in high school," he said. "So my mom and me talked about it and we decided that if I didn't do well in football I'd go into the boys choral, get my education and sing. . . . My mom kept telling me that the main thing was to get an education and if I made the football team, fine."

Milhon said he had never seen Williams play, but it didn't take long for him to generate attention from the coaching staff.

"I had no idea if he could play or not," Milhon said. "During practice my offensive coordinator said this Derick Williams can catch the football but he's only 5-2. So I said to him, 'I don't care if he's 3-feet tall as long as he can catch the ball' ."

When he started practicing, Williams said he wasn't optimistic about receiving a lot of playing time. So he was more than a little surprised when he was informed that he would be starting the Cal Lutheran game.

"When (Milhon) called out the receivers who would start, first he named the other guy and then when he named me it was a shock at first. But I think it has just made me want to work that much harder."

Only three games into his freshman season, Williams said his experience at Azusa Pacific has provided the boost that his playing career needed.

"It has really picked up my self-esteem," he said. "I never allowed (my spirits) to break when I was in high school, but since I've been here, it has really been good for me."

But Williams said his mother has had mixed feelings about his new-found success.

"After the Cal Lutheran game, I called her and told her I caught four passes and she said, 'That's great!' Then I told her about me getting hit and she wanted me to quit. She wants me to do well but in her heart she just doesn't want me to get hurt.

"She knows I'm a small person and there are some big guys out there, but she's pretty happy to see me playing--even though she doesn't tell me."

For Williams' part, he doesn't think his lack of size should get in the way of success on the field.

"I have a small body, but I can do anything a tall receiver can," he said. "I just have to work a little harder than they do. You almost have to do more than a tall receiver would because more people notice them. So you have to make yourself stand out and that's what I try to do.

"My first Pop Warner coach told me that you don't have to be big, you just have to have heart and I think I do."

There is no doubt in Milhon's mind that Williams has heart.

"He always does everything you would expect of him and he works very hard," Milhon said. "He's just a very determined person. There are some people that are probably saying this must not be a very good football team for him to (start) as a freshman, but there are a lot of small kids who have played at this level and excelled."

Williams is hoping that he will add another inch or two by next season and he has increased his strength by lifting weights.

"Every time I take a physical (the doctor) says that I'm still growing," he said. "If I can gain a couple more inches, that would be nice."

Even if he doesn't grow another inch, Williams is satisfied that he has already passed his biggest challenge.

"I've already proven people wrong," he said. "So I don't have to brag about it or say anything to them about it. I just have to play."

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