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Coaches tip visors for UA's Rawleigh Williams

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Photographs by Benjamin Krain

Former Arkansas running back Rawleigh Williams is getting a great deal of admiration from several SEC coaches after he decided to end his college football career last week.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The respect Rawleigh Williams earned throughout the SEC in his two seasons as an Arkansas Razorback was evident during Monday's SEC spring football conference call.

Williams, a 1,360-yard rusher as a sophomore in 2016, decided last week to end his football career after suffering a second neurological event on a light-contact play during the Razorbacks' spring practice finale on April 29.

Coach Bret Bielema said since Williams' injury occurred in the spring, it has given the coaching staff a chance to plan for the 2017 season and beyond.

"We've had people contact us about opportunities within our program because of the timing of it," Bielema said.

Williams bounced back from an October, 2015, injury, which required surgery to repair a disc in his neck to lead the SEC with seven 100-yard games and rank third in total rushing yardage last season.

"In the big picture, I've just got total respect for the decision because there is so much more to life," Florida Coach Jim McElwain said. "To me, that just speaks to the kid, speaks to Bret standing by his side. It's a big loss, but yet, you know what, It puts it into perspective as well."

Williams rushed for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's 31-10 victory over the No. 11 Gators on Nov. 5, 2016.

"He was fun to watch as a competitor until it was your turn to play him," Missouri Coach Barry Odom said.

South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp said he was extremely disappointed for Williams' sake.

"His first episode, I was the defensive coordinator at Auburn when the situation happened there in Fayetteville," Muschamp said. "Regardless of whether a player is on your team or not, you never want to see anything like that happen. I remember texting Bret after the game, and they felt like he was going to be OK. Then he came back and had a phenomenal year. He's a very talented young man. Based on what I do know about the young man, he'll have a successful life because of who he is."

Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn echoed that sentiment.

"I hated to see it, and I know our coaches and players did too," said Malzahn the former Arkansas offensive coordinator (2006), who coach Shiloh Christian and Springdale to numerous state titles before moving on to college. "Talking to Kerryon Johnson, I know he reached out to him in a Tweet. We wish him the best."

Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze said he knew Williams personally, as the running back originally committed to the Rebels before becoming a Razorback.

"You just hurt for him [and] you hurt for his family," Freeze said. "He's a very mature kid. All through recruiting he was that way. He's a person of faith and people of faith kind of look at things a little differently at times. His faith will sustain him through this.

"But it is sad to see. You just hate it for a quality kid like that because that's the kid you want in your locker room, you want leading your football team because he is so mature and he's just a quality individual. He's going to be successful at whatever he does. I know that's a blow to Coach Bielema and his team just because of his leadership and the quality of player he is, but what a great kid."

LSU Coach Ed Orgeron described Williams as a great running back.

"Any time that happens to anyone in the conference you feel bad," Orgeron said. "We want to be able to compete at the highest level. He's a great young man and I feel bad for him and his family. But I'm sure he's going to take the things that he learned in football and go into a career and be highly successful."

Bielema said the reality of Williams' situation set in for the Razorbacks inside Walker Pavilion on April 29 as he was being tended to by medical personnel and being strapped down and taken off in an ambulance, much like the day he was injured against Auburn on Oct. 24, 2015.

Bielema said he thinks sophomore Devwah Whaley and the other contenders at tailback will be motivated to fill the void left by Williams' departure.

"I think Devwah, my guess is he probably entered spring with the idea to become the starting tailback," Bielema said. "That's just how he's wired. I don't know how much it affects him.

"Some of those younger players, a guy like Maleek Williams and maybe possibly Juan Day, Chase Hayden, the freshman coming in, it probably pushes them a little bit more and that's probably a good thing for the summer."

Sports on 05/16/2017

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