As recruiting heats up, Leshon Williams ready to take the reins at Richards

Richards' Leshon Williams ran for over 2,100 yards last season and will be one of the area's top senior RBs this coming fall. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.
Richards' Leshon Williams ran for over 2,100 yards last season and will be one of the area's top senior RBs this coming fall. Worsom Robinson/For the Sun-Times.

Sebastian Castro remembers the beginning of the 2017 season, the start of his two-year reign as both the offensive and defensive star of Richards’ powerhouse football program, when a young running back named Leshon Williams was called up to the varsity team.

“He was the big [sophomore] coming in, and he always wanted to hang around me,” Castro said. “That was during the time I was getting heavily recruited. He didn’t believe in himself, he didn’t think he would get schools to look at him, too.”

How times have changed.

Castro is headed off to Iowa now, turning the Bulldogs — who were undefeated until the Class 6A semifinals last season — over to Williams and his teammates.

And Williams is coming off an absurd junior campaign, touts offers from most of the MAC and burgeoning interest from some Big Ten schools, and is on track to cement his own place in the high school’s history.

“He’s just grown by leaps and bounds over the last two years. He’s taken ownership that it’s now his team, and he’s [put in] the hard work that it takes to be a great player,” coach Tony Sheehan said. “When it’s all said and done, he could be one of the best backs to play here at Richards.”

Williams’ team now

The 5-10, 190-pound rusher pounded, cut and darted to a mind-blowing stat line last season: 2,115 yards and 24 touchdowns, for an average of 163 yards per game and 9.7 yards per carry.

Williams said a first-round loss the prior season motivated the team throughout the offseason, and that dedication paid off for everyone. With Castro by his side, the Bulldogs cruised through the regular season, winning each of their nine games by an average score of 39-5. Then in the playoffs, they squeaked past Yorkville and Normal West before losing a thriller to Crete-Montee in the semis.

But now Williams has to be ‘The Guy,’ all by himself.

Said Castro: “I know he’s ready.”

“He saw how much work Castro put in and that pushed him, and now he’s taken that lead,” Sheehan said.

“I’ve been working on trying to be more explosive, trying to be more of a leader for the team, a motivator for my team,” Williams said. “I usually lead by action, but I’m going to have to really become more vocal. With the other guys, show them how everything is going to be done and show them the way.”

In addition to the focus on his leadership skills, Williams has also been working this winter on his explosiveness and acceleration, hoping to add to his already-versatile skill set.

Sheehan orchestrates an old-school, pound-the-rock offensive system and Williams, not particularly big but more than particularly powerful, is an excellent fit. He can burrow into the line, of course — that’s a must. But he’s also exceedingly quick and shifty in the open field, which comes in handy when he burrows into the line and out into green grass on the other side.

“To win in Illinois and to advance, you’ve got to be able to run the ball,” Sheehan said. “People are going to load up the box on him, so we’re going to have to get creative with what we do, but he’s such a good and talented running back that he makes everyone around him better.”

Recruiting process intensifying

Richards will open the 2019 season the same way it did 2018 — against Lincoln-Way Central and St. Rita the first two weeks — before a huge matchup against Class 5A semifinalist Hillcrest on Sept. 13.

But in the meantime, Williams is fully entrenched in the recruiting process.

When he talked with the Sun-Times on Monday evening, he had nine offers from MAC schools, including Northern Illinois (the first to get on board), Toledo and Eastern Michigan. A few hours later, he tweeted out a new offer from Miami-Ohio, upping his MAC total to 10. Only Buffalo and Akron haven’t offered.

He also has heavy interest from Wyoming, in a break from the geographic narrative.

“Wyoming, it meant a lot for a school that far out [to offer me]. Toledo, they put a lot of people in the NFL,” he said. “I can’t really explain how each one of them feels different, but they all mean something, because it’s an honor to have anyone see my skill and give me a free scholarship to college.”

Soon, though, he expects Minnesota — which he visited earlier this winter — to come down to Oak Lawn to see him work out; an offer from the Gophers seems like a very real possibility. The Minnesota staff has told him they just want to scout his pass-catching ability, which is lacking from his mixtape because it’s not usually part of the Richards playbook, before deciding.

That could potentially break Williams’ recruiting process wide open, thrusting him dramatically into the power-conference talent pool. He’s also been in touch with Nebraska and Iowa, the latter of which will soon include Castro on its roster, as well as Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State.

He’s taking a patient approach — not planning to commit until after the 2019 high school season, around the Dec. 18-20 early signing period — so there are presumably plenty of twists and turns left in this storyline.

“Hopefully somebody pulls the trigger on him, because I truly do feel he is a Big Ten back,” Sheehan said. “But at the same time, if not, there’s a lot of great backs that go to the MAC and the MAC is very good football. So if that’s where he ends up and if that’s where he feels his best chance is … then I’ll be happy for him.”

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