SAN DIEGO – It’s a perfect nickname for the running back with the thin zig-zag shaved into his hairline, which might look like a lightning bolt at first glance but more accurately resembles the spiky peaks of a heart monitor – if the person hooked up to the machine had just chugged a Red Bull. Dexter Williams sprints like a dream – head low, knees high, arms pumping – and watching him charge into the end zone makes you want to jump out of your seat, too, if only to feel your quadriceps stretch and flex as though they might have the power to carry you halfway across a football field like his do.
It’s no wonder they call him ‘Juice’.
Williams earned the nickname at West Orange High School in Orlando, and it has followed him through four years at Notre Dame. This season, as the third-ranked Fighting Irish’s leading rusher with 512 yards and seven touchdowns through just four games, the senior embodies it more than ever.
He missed the first four games of the year because of an unconfirmed suspension, which meant two things.
First, it meant he made his 2018 debut vs. Stanford, the same game in which national audiences and pundits started taking the Irish seriously as a playoff contender. Williams was a big part of that; he led the team for 161 yards that Saturday in September as he, quarterback Ian Book and senior wide receiver Miles Boykin revved Notre Dame’s offense into high gear.
That Stanford was his first game back also meant Williams got to kick off his season in prime time. His reintroduction came by way of a 45-yard touchdown run on his first touch of the year that brought a packed Notre Dame Stadium on its feet.
“Man, Dex is huge,” Boykin said after that game, huddled in the corner of a crowded interview room in South Bend. “His nickname is Juice for a reason: His energy is contagious. Having Dex back is huge for us just for team morale. Obviously he can go out there and ball, but the stuff that he brings, the intangibles, the energy…”
The energy Williams brings to his team is clear as Notre Dame has rolled to its first 8-0 record since 2012, with a meeting Saturday against Northwestern, which knocked off No. 20 Wisconsin this past week.
He averages 128 rushing yards per game, 6.9 yards per carry and is explosive when the Irish need it most. For his second performance of the season, a hotly anticipated matchup at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Williams churned out three rushing touchdowns. Another trio of rushing scores against Navy on Saturday made him Notre Dame’s first ball carrier with multiple three-touchdown games since the 2015 season.
“I’m so happy to have that name, to carry out that name,” Williams said Saturday night. “I know my team needs me to be the Juice-man, and that’s what I have to be. Basically, I have to give the team a spark. They lean on me for that spark.”
For Williams, the four games he sat out set the tone for the rest of his season.
The senior hated not being able to play, hated not being able to provide his offense with a jolt. Being the Juice-man is part of Williams’ identity. Without that and football, he went stir-crazy.
“It didn’t really hit me until the Michigan game when I couldn’t run across the white line to take the field with my offense,” Williams said. “It really hurt me, so ever since then I’ve been working late nights, grinding with a couple trainers back in South Bend.”
He leaned on his teammates to keep him focused and took in a new roommate for the month of September: his mother, Cheryl, who flew from Florida to keep her son company while he served his suspension.
Williams and his mother were always close, but they grew closer when Cheryl was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called myasthenia gravis in 2006. It’s a terminal illness that occasionally leaves Cheryl fatigued, short of breath and sensitive to extreme temperatures.
The running back was happy to have his mother close again for a few weeks. Williams and the rest of his family have been pitching in to help take care of Cheryl for years, but as September crawled by in South Bend, Williams’s mother took care of him.
“She helped me each and every day, making sure I was praying, and she also cooked meals to make sure I always had breakfast in the morning, I always had lunch and always had dinner so I was able to keep my weight up,” Williams said. “She was making sure I stayed focused. Having her there, my house felt like a home again.”
The sacrifice Cheryl made for her son has motivated Williams this season, as has the suspension. The senior knows he has less time to make an impression this year, and his numbers reflect the urgency he plays with. As does his dedication off the field.
Irish Coach Brian Kelly gave Williams the game ball after Notre Dame’s 44-22 win over Navy on Saturday, not for his three touchdowns, but for his blocking. Kelly said Williams has become a more well-rounded back in his senior year.
Williams works to make sure he can provide a spark to his team, and as Kelly explained Saturday, it doesn’t just affect the players. The Juice-man gets to the coaching staff, too.
“Just his dedication to wanting to be the best player he can be,” Kelly said, when asked what about Williams has impressed him most this season. “… That’s hard to do sometimes when you’re at his stage … not playing in the first four weeks. He is so focused on being the best version of Dexter Williams, it’s fun to coach him right now.”
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