RJ Williamson's Michigan State teammates thought the veteran safety was on pace for an all-conference type of season, if not better, before he joined the sizable injury ward in East Lansing in October.
Williamson, a fifth-year senior, hasn’t played since tearing one of his biceps in the first Big Ten game of the season. Through five games, he had collected 24 tackles, picked off two passes and recovered a fumble. More importantly, his 43 games of college football gave him easily the most battle-tested resume in a secondary that otherwise lacked significant experience.
"That was our leader," said cornerback Arjen Colquhoun, who became a regular part of the defensive backfield rotation for the first time this fall. "That was the heart and soul of our secondary. Having him back now is just a bonus."
Williamson returned to practice at full speed this week in preparation for the Spartans’ date with No. 2 Alabama in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on Dec. 31. The safety with a penchant for sliding up to help stop the run will undoubtedly be an asset against the Crimson Tide and Heisman winner Derrick Henry. In his time on the sideline, though, Williamson’s presence has gone from absolutely essential to "a bonus" as the young Spartan secondary grew up by necessity.
The injury came at a kick-them-while-they’re-down time for the Spartans, who had already lost a starting linebacker and cornerback for the season and were dealing with a rash of offensive line injuries.
The coaching staff mixed and matched lineups to try to find a workable replacement. At times they started two true freshmen. Junior Demetrious Cox, the new veteran of the group, bounced between cornerback and safety trying plug different gaps. And the product, normally a strength of a Mark Dantonio defense, suffered. Michigan State allowed an average of 28 points per game in its first four games without Williamson. The low point came in a 39-38 loss to Nebraska, which passed for 91 yards in four plays to win the game on its final drive.
Williamson did his best to stay involved and help the younger guys who were trying to keep their heads above water after being thrown in the deep end. Cox described him as an extra coach in practice. Co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said Williamson’s role as a teacher helped keep the defensive back from gathering rust while he rehabbed his arm.
"He was always involved and engaged in everything we were doing even while he was out," Barnett said. "It’s not like he's behind on anything and understanding techniques or tweaks or things we have made throughout the course of the year."
With Williamson’s help, the defense improved. The momentary lapses that so often led to damaging big plays started coming fewer and farther between. Consistency slowly arrived.
"(We were) throwing guys on the fire," Cox said. "They had to come out ready to play. You can either crumble or stand up. I feel like those guys played really well."
In its most recent four games, the Michigan State defense has improved dramatically. The Spartans allowed only 12.5 points per game and their opponent topped 300 total yards only once. The better performances came in bigger games, taking down two teams ranked in the top five to clinch a Big Ten title and a playoff spot.
Williamson’s return adds another layer to that defensive backfield, which will once again have to be at its best to stop Alabama. Not only will the players in the back have to contain freshman All-American receiver Calvin Ridley, but they will also be expected to pitch in with slowing down the powerful Tide rushing attack.
"We are excited to have him back," Barnett said. "He will contribute heavily in this game."