By JIMMY WIGFIELD
AUBURN — There is decent speed, great speed, greased lightning and hypersonic speed, then there is Ryan Williams speed, which comes with the added shock of having your insides unzipped if you’re not wearing a Saraland jersey.
Williams relishes being the fastest kid on the playground and he’ll smilingly snatch your lunch money, fidget spinners and ice cream cone — he’ll gulp it down without getting brain freeze — and you’ll try to catch him but your legs will go to jelly and you’ll fall on your face with snot bubbles pouring out, even while he plots, as he said, “to put the dagger in.” And before you can sit in the dirt and cry about it, you know you’ll never get your stuff back because he’s already run to another field.
Williams carried the Blue Map off the field after the No. 4 Spartans razed No. 8 Mountain Brook 38-17 for the Class 6A state championship Friday night before 20,000 fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium and people are already debating if anybody else will get it back as long as he is wearing a Saraland jersey.
“We want to come back and do it again,” said Williams, the game’s MVP who decided the outcome early with a fusillade of big plays in the first half.
Jeff Kelly was the winningest active coach in the state over the last five years without a Blue Map until Williams and a precocious team including 30 other sophomores helped deliver it.
In a celebratory frenzy, the trophy nearly careened off Kelly’s hands before his players helped their coach stand it up straight and proud while an avalanche of cheers washed over them from the towering stands.
“We’ve got a new trophy case in the front of the school and there is a pretty place built for a Blue Map right in the middle and we’ll display it with pride,” said Kelly, whose team finished 14-1. “I am so proud of our guys … to see them continue to answer the call, to come up here on this stage and not bat an eye.”
Nobody could bat an eye if they wanted to see Williams’ bedazzling performance on his grandest stage yet.
Williams scored all four Spartans touchdowns in the first half on the way to a 28-10 lead. He ran for 188 yards on 15 carries and three touchdowns — 172 came in the first half — and caught a 24-yard TD pass from fellow sophomore K.J. Lacey, who afterward announced he had received an offer from South Carolina.
“As long as I play my game, in my mind, 10 times out of 10 I know I’m the best player on the field,” said Williams, the 15-year-old five-star Alabama commitment and likely the state’s first sophomore Mr. Football.
Many of the 20,000 fans sprang to their feet and roared every time Williams touched the ball, then rubbed their eyes to make sure they weren’t hallucinating or brushed away little cinders which had floated into the stands from the scorched turf left in his wake.
Williams scored on runs of 61 and 58 yards on two of his first three carries — the 58-yarder came on fourth-and-2 at his own 42 and showed Kelly was not going to play it safe to end the agonizing memories of Saraland’s two previous close losses in the Super 7. Kelly went for it on fourth down four times and the Spartans converted all of them.
“We felt we had to take some chances, just put our chips in the middle of the table,” Kelly said. “So if it’s fourth-and-2 at the 42, let’s go win a state championship.”
In between, Williams caught a 24-yard scoring pass from Lacey on a corner route where the safeties were so fearful of Williams they were backed up almost to the exit tunnel, even on a short field.
“After the first series or two, there was no doubt,” said Lacey, who was 12-of-21 passing for 130 yards and finished his first season as the starter with 3,176 yards, 40 TDs and only five interceptions.
“I think he’s proven that he should be one of the best quarterbacks in the country over the next couple years,” Kelly said.
‘I had to put the dagger in’
But the play that will linger longer in state football lore was Williams’ shortest run, just when it seemed Mountain Brook (12-3) had been resuscitated, trailing just 21-10 late in the first half.
Instead, Williams threw the last shovel of dirt on Mountain Brook by scoring on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with two seconds remaining to make it 28-10 after Kelly successfully challenged a call that time had expired.
Williams knew it was time to put the players in the gold helmets out of their misery.
“I had to put the dagger in,” Williams said. “I had to make them question if they wanted to be here or not.”
The play came after Williams made a short reception and was jolted out of bounds at the 1 by cornerback Tucker Crawford, whose feet were in the end zone when he launched himself at Williams, wrapped him up from behind and rode him off the field.
Officials ruled time had run out but Kelly challenged the call and a replay showed two seconds were left. Mountain Brook players — on their way to the locker room and sure they were safely out of range of any more barrages from Williams — had to be recalled to the field.
“I just happened to be watching the clock and I knew we got out of bounds in time,” Kelly said.
After a timeout, Williams motioned to quarterback, took the direct snap and lunged through a hole left tackle Ethan Green created when he folded up Mountain Brook lineman William Hoyt, who pounded the turf with his fists in frustration when he saw Williams fall head-first into the end zone.
“That was a huge, crushing deal,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t thinking about a field goal. We’re inside the 1 and we’ve already got two Red Maps. If it didn’t work out, we’d take a third one.”
Mountain Brook coach Chris Yeager knew that moment would be etched in his mind for a long time.
“They have a great football team,” Yeager said. “They are a championship team but we are too. Nobody makes you a champion because they put a ring on your finger or a trophy on your shelf. A champion is something that occurs during the journey and something that occurs for the rest of your life.”
Flash, then smash
To protect the big lead, Saraland rode sophomore running back Santae McWilliams the rest of the way as he piled up 110 of his 161 yards on the ground in the second half and the Spartans ran 17:29 off the clock.
McWilliams added a 5-yard TD run with 7:10 to go and Hunter Kirkland kicked a 30-yard field goal late in the third quarter as Saraland finished with 488 yards of total offense.
“We wanted to have good ball security,” said McWilliams, who ran for 287 yards in the last two rounds against Theodore and Mountain Brook. “Then we had to keep in front of the chains. When we first came out, we were a little nervous, being the state championship, but the big plays early helped.”
The Spartans’ offensive line had to perform in the second half to shield the big lead and Saraland finished with a Class 6A Super 7-record 358 yards rushing.
“We wanted to get Ryan in space but also pound the football,” offensive guard Brandon Sexton said. “If we didn’t run the football tonight, we weren’t going to win this game.”
Added fellow guard Tyler Crenshaw: “All the big plays early, we couldn’t relax. We do that and we’d start giving up sacks.”
Kelly was grateful for the versatility his sophomore trio of Williams, Lacey and McWilliams give him in play-calling.
“A lot of times the defense has to pick their poison,” Kelly said. “Tonight, when they had extra guys in the secondary, Santae made some plays and we got balance.”
There was no hope of a Mountain Brook comeback — “We played better in the second half but I didn’t know how much we had left in the tank,” Yeager said — unless the Spartans uncharacteristically began making mistakes. But they didn’t and finished with only four turnovers in 280 playoff snaps. Lacey threw three of his five interceptions in the postseason and Saraland lost only one fumble to Wetumpka in the first round, the only time in the playoffs a ball even touched the ground.
The biggest catch
Kelly nearly committed the Spartans’ only serious error in the postgame revelry when he juggled the Blue Map and sent it flying but it tumbled into a pile of his players and Kelly recovered, in keeping with Saraland’s remarkable +23 turnover ratio this season.
“I probably wouldn’t have ever lived that down,” Kelly said.
Afterward, Williams took hold of the cherished trophy as he walked off the field with Lacey.
“Even though we’d break down every huddle with ‘state champs,’ even though we talked it up, it felt good to know we did it,” Williams said. “Even before we touched the equipment, we knew we had to go win it.”
Kelly, who is now 118-35 in 12 years with the Spartans, had been 22-11 in 12 straight playoff appearances but was 0-3 in the Super 7 by a combined 18 points and for months told his players of his distaste for another Red Map.
“We said it wasn’t enough to get here,” Kelly said. “We wanted to come here and play our best football. They’ve been working for this for a long time and they got it done. … It’s a team that’s been really consistent and to go through the South part of the state and go 14-1, playing against probably the toughest road in the playoffs — Hillcrest, Theodore, now Mountain Brook.”
To break the North bracket’s stranglehold of six straight state championships and nine of the last 10, Kelly leaned on his long-held belief of paring back the playbook in the most meaningful games.
“We didn’t put in anything new at all,” Kelly said. “I wanted us to be good at what we do in our base stuff so guys can be operating out there without thinking about new schemes. We wanted to revert back to what you know like the back of your hand.”
No Gamble for defense
Meanwhile, Saraland’s defense sifted through Mountain Brook’s motion-heavy offense, never letting it keep the ball away from the Spartans’ offense, which led Class 6A in scoring at 43 points per game.
“They’re a challenge defensively to handle all that motion and shifting,” Kelly said. “It took a while for us to settle in but we shut down their running game and they quit running it.”
Saraland’s run defense was exceptional in the last two playoff games against Theodore and Mountain Brook.
It held the Bobcats without a touchdown for the first time in 61 games and to 173 yards rushing after Theodore had averaged 238 in the playoffs.
It held Mountain Brook star Cole Gamble, who had rushed for 2,100 yards coming in and had scored 17 TDs in the playoffs, to 75 yards on 20 carries — half of his average.
“We shut their run down,” Spartans senior defensive lineman Jimmy Byrd said. “They ran that stretch play most but we were too athletic and too physical. All that motion, that wasn’t the D-line’s focus. We practiced their game plan so well this week. They came out and did exactly what we practiced.”
Kelly finally tugged off his headsets with 25 seconds to go and there was nothing left to do except look at the massive video board at Jordan-Hare Stadium until some of his players sneaked up behind him and inundated him with a cascade of ice water.
Fireworks shimmered in the night sky but Williams had made those almost a formality with his own brand of pyrotechnics in the first half.
“I’m just grateful to be on this team,” Williams said. “We wouldn’t be here without the players and coaches and I couldn’t be more thankful.”