UPPER DARBY >> When it comes to playing football and tapping into his raw potential, Mike Williams still has plenty of learning to do.
The Upper Darby senior offensive lineman stands at 6-6, 290 pounds, according to the Royals’ official roster. Williams is an intimidating young man, which is what coach Richie Gentile loves about him.
“He didn’t understand how strong he was, “ Gentile said. “Last year he would step up, hit someone and kind of just stop, then start up again. Players that don’t play, who haven’t normally played a lot, that’s what happens to them. They make contact and stop.”
So the message to Williams from Gentile and his coaches throughout the offseason and summer camp? Don’t stop.
In the Royals’ 35-0 thumping of Bonner & Prendergast last week, Williams answered the call. He was a dominating force in the trenches.
“He was driving guys back 10, 15 yards,” assistant coach Eric Ruffenach said.
But when you ask Williams about his progression, a relative novice after quitting football his sophomore year only to come back as a junior, he doesn’t say much. The soft-spoken big fella would prefer to talk more about the team, and not about himself.
“I just had to put in the work and learn the plays, basically,” Williams said, a starting tackle on the offensive line. “I’m good right now. Just going out there and working.”
Williams was thrust into action in the first game of the 2016 season following an injury to starter James King. Williams struggled at various times as Upper Darby did its best to put forth a makeshift offensive line unit, pressing skill players and other inexperienced faces into starting duty. One of the reasons Upper Darby stumbled to a 5-7 record was because it lacked experience up front.
Today, the Royals see their lines as a strength.
“What Mike has learned is he steps, gets his hands on people and continues to move,” Gentile said. “He did a really nice job last week. He did a really nice job in our scrimmage against Interboro, too.”
For Upper Darby to have success in 2017, Williams and the offensive line will have to take shape and develop into one of the top units in the Central League.
“We’re going to need him, absolutely,” Gentile said. “We’re fortunate enough where we don’t have a lot of guys, a lot of our big guys, going both ways. Mike can focus (on being an offensive lineman).”
Williams certainly isn’t the only offensive player turning heads. Quarterback Josh Gouch was sharp in his first varsity start last week.
“To make a statement for the season, the team needed to know how good we are and how good we can be,” Gouch said. “To get a big win like that, it makes us all feel good.”
Gouch started every game at quarterback for Upper Darby’s JV team last year. When he got playing time on varsity, it was at wide receiver. Gouch prefers to view himself as a contributor, open to playing any position on the field.
“Whatever the coaches need me to do, wherever they need me to play to better the team, that’s what I’ll do,” Gouch said. “As long as I’m on the field, it doesn’t matter. Wherever they need me to go, that’s where I’ll go.”
Gouch’s ability to elude defenders and make something out of nothing helped him win the No. 1 job in the summer.
“Josh can get through the hole and make you miss,” Gentile said. “We had a play against Bonner, we were running a quarterback iso and it was clogged. So he took a step back and was quick enough to turn the corner and get 14 or 15 yards. That adds another dimension to running the ball. In this offense, you have to have a quarterback who can get you those yards and a guy that the defenses have to account for.”
Friday night, Williams and Gouch lead the Royals into battle at Garnet Valley, the No. 1 team in Delaware County. The Jaguars, who are ranked fifth in the PaPreplive.com Top 20, claimed a 19-7 victory over West Chester Rustin last week. Matt Lassik rushed for 169 yards and a touchdown, while Danny Guy chipped in with 72 yards and a score.
“Our guys are excited to get on the field with them,” Gentile said. “They play off-man defensively, keep everything in front of them and they shrink the field. But what happened against Rustin was, you’ve got to get their offense off the field. They’ll have nine-minute drives and your offense is on the sideline and can’t get into a rhythm at all. We can’t let that happen.”
Garnet Valley is not Bonner & Prendergast, and the Royals are aware they are in for a big fight. They are the underdogs, but win or lose, they have an opportunity to show the Central League they are a much-improved team in 2017.
“They’re another roadblock to where we want to go and that’s to win the Central League,” Gouch said. “We’re ready for the challenge.”