The nickname never has bothered Rodrick Williams.
During his recruiting visit for the Gophers, he polished off about 50 chicken nuggets. His future teammates and coaches immediately started calling him “Nugget.” To this day, the Lewisville, Texas, native still answers to “Nugg.”
“I guess it just stuck,” Williams said, smiling.
Maybe that’s proof that Williams doesn’t take himself too seriously, but it’s not exactly the most endearing moniker for an aspiring tailback. The best ones are usually known for their speed, power and agility, not their fast-food exploits.
Williams weighed 247 pounds at the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, when he finished his junior season with a mere 23 carries.
With David Cobb headed to the NFL, the opportunity is there for Williams to emerge as the team’s featured tailback. But Gophers coaches insisted he address his fitness first. Williams got the message. He revamped his diet and shed 20 pounds in less than three months.
“I couldn’t be more proud of anybody on this team than I am of Rodrick,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “He’s becoming a leader. I don’t want to pin this all on him, but he’s making the kind of change that David Cobb did as far as seeing the light.”
The coaches love retelling Cobb’s story, noting how he waited largely in the shadows for two years before emerging as a junior and setting school records for carries (315) and rushing yards (1,626) as a senior.
Williams knows. He was there. In fact, Cobb sort of took his job. They shared tailback duties early in the 2013 season, after Donnell Kirkwood sprained an ankle. Williams had 16 carries for a career-high 148 yards at New Mexico State, but Cobb started taking off after that.
“Cobb is basically like my brother, so I’m not mad at him for basically taking my spot,” Williams said. “[Coach Jerry] Kill said, ‘Just be ready whenever,’ and that’s what I did — sat there and waited for my time and handled my business.”
When Cobb sprained his hamstring at Nebraska last November, the Gophers looked sunk. But Williams got the ball on fourth-and-1, and bounced outside the tackles for a 19-yard touchdown. He added a 20-yard touchdown run in the Citrus Bowl and quietly finished with a similar yards per carry (4.96) to Cobb’s (5.16).
Now, Williams is battling sophomore Berkley Edwards and two promising redshirt freshmen — Rodney Smith and Jeff Jones — for the starting tailback job.
Kill has said one reason he is having Jones practice as a slot receiver in addition to running back is because Williams appears to have a good handle on things.
“This is my last year, so I mean, it’s now or never,” Williams said. “So I’ve just got to mature. If they need me to lose weight, I’ve got to lose the weight or whatever. If they need me to run the ball 30 times [per game], I’ve got to do that.”
To trim down, Williams had to curb his affinity for nuggets and tacos. He’s among the Gophers who have successfully changed their diet with the help of the team’s second-year nutritionist Brittany Francis.
Williams said he is watching his carbs and fat intake, eating more lean meats and veggies, drinking more water.
“He looks good,” Kill said. “We’ve got a pretty good system. Each week I get a report on everything from academics, to the weight room, to what they’re eating. I’ve got a pretty good idea who’s doing what they’re supposed to, and who’s not.
“I take it, I look at it, and I file it. And if they don’t understand why they’re not playing, I pull it out and say, ‘Here you go.’ So we’re holding them accountable right now.”
And by staying accountable, Nugget might be the one holding the football most this fall as a senior.