November 14, 2017 11:00:04 PM
STARKVILLE -- Darryl Williams' help disappeared in the first quarter of his fifth career start.
Mississippi State was strategic with how it placed its new starters on the offensive line, Williams at left guard and right tackle Stewart Reese: it put experienced Deion Calhoun next to Reese and highly-rated left tackle Martinas Rankin next to Williams. Rankin's injury in MSU's loss to Auburn quickly turned Williams from student to teacher with Rankin's replacement being freshman Greg Eiland.
It wasn't the ideal development arc, but it was valuable experience gained all the same.
That experience, and the five games in which Williams has played alongside Rankin, has made Williams a competent yet improving starter with two years of eligibility still ahead of him. A week after ESPN's Greg McElroy said on the television broadcast of MSU's game against Alabama that MSU has taken a liking to running behind the left side of the line, No. 17 MSU (7-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference, No. 16 College Football Playoff) is likely to do more of the same as it faces Arkansas (4-6, 1-5 SEC) 11 a.m. Saturday (WCBI) at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The path to all of this began in the offseason.
"I think he's really come along nicely," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "I think he went into the offseason with a chip on his shoulder, wanting to prove what he can do. He was one of the hardest working guys on the offensive line in the offseason, really saw an opportunity to go play and said, 'I'm going to go take that opportunity, I'm going to go get that spot.'"
Simply put by Williams: "My time is now."
That doesn't mean Williams attacked the offseason in some revelatory way. He is a redshirt sophomore, after all, so comfort in the system is not an issue for him. The only change he made was one that's pretty common among college football players.
"I may have done a little more cardio just to get my body healthier, faster and being able to extend drives and stay on the field for an extended period of time," he said.
That conditioning surely helped in Williams' performance against LSU, for which he was named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week as MSU ran for 285 yards, 5.9 per carry, on the Tigers.
All of a sudden, the mental aspect of the game became the true challenge.
When Eiland was called into action to replace Rankin, the beginning wasn't easy. Eiland received several false start penalties once inserted into the game against Auburn, but over time became a serviceable replacement to the point that MSU kept him in against Texas A&M and UMass even though Rankin could have been cleared to play.
"I had to communicate a little more with Greg coming in, knowing he's a first-year guy playing a position that's hard to play, left tackle," Williams said. "I had to communicate with him and let him know that if there's anything he needs, I got him.
"It wasn't a lot of pressure on me, I just feel like it made me become a better communicator. It made me grow as a person."
Rankin rested easy when he left Eiland in Williams' hands.
"Whatever the situation was, I think he was ready for it already. He's been maturing and maturing every week," Rankin said. "When I went down, it was time for him to step up and he was ready for it."
Rankin has a better view of that maturation process than most: he and Williams have been roommates for two years. Rankin knew Williams was prepared to help Eiland through because he's often been the one answering Williams' questions that prepared him for that moment.
That and the moments sure to come.
"He's going to be a big-time player here at Mississippi State -- as he already is," Rankin said.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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