BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - If you felt a rush of wind blowing by you late Thursday afternoon, don't be alarmed. It was not severe weather, but a severe sigh of relief from Auburn football fans.
It's been a week since star receiver D'haquille Williams went absent for what coach Gus Malzahn called a "disciplinary issue," and his return to practice spells good news for both Williams and the football team.
Coach Malzahn made the news official Thursday just before 6 p.m., saying the receiver will start back at the bottom of the depth chart. Will Duke play in the opener? Said Malzahn, "It's a day-to-day deal with him."
Yes, the Tigers would have been one of the favorites to win the SEC's western division even without Williams, but his return further bolsters the team's chances of going to Atlanta in early December. And Duke? Just imagine where he would be without another season of NFL scouts drooling over his game video.
Does Duke Williams need Auburn more than Auburn needs Duke Williams? It's a bit of a wash. Imagine if Williams dropped out of school: He'd still have NFL types clamoring for his services, but his status as the top receiver taken in the 2016 NFL Draft would be damaged. Yes, Williams would soon be on an NFL roster, but his bank account would suffer. One solid, healthy season at Auburn will make him a very rich young man come next April.
On the flip side? The Auburn offense without Duke Williams would take a hit. Last season, the 6-foot-2, 225 lb receiver caught 45 passes for 730 yards. He turned in four 100-yard receiving games and came up big in the biggest games of the season (witness his seven catches for 121 yards at Alabama).
While coaches Malzahn and Lashlee would work this fall with current receivers like Ricardo Luis, Melvin Ray (Duke's likely replacement at split end or slot), Myron Burton, Jr. (says Lashlee, "Myron's a guy we need"), Jason Smith, Darius Slayton, Jonathan Wallace and Marcus Davis, there's only one Duke Williams. If Williams is worth, say a touchdown a game, you can argue that last season the Tigers would have lost to Ole Miss and tied South Carolina. An 8-5 season would have been much worse.
So what's been the deal with this young man? Williams was suspended for January's Outback Bowl, and in May sent out a series of Tweets indicating that he was unhappy at Auburn. His latest suspension resulted in "Rumorville USA" kicking into high gear.
While I'm here to tell you the most recent absence did NOT deal with an argument or a fight with a teammate or a coach, it's clearly evident that Williams needed an attitude adjustment. Coach Gus Malzahn addressed that attitude adjustment immediately, thus assuring his coaches that there would not be another Jermaine Whitehead deal that would distract the team once the season begins.
I do not know Duke Williams personally, but I have found him to be pleasant and cooperative in the times I have interviewed him- in fact he stood tall in meeting the media last season after a hard-fought loss at Bryant-Denny Stadium. He is a hard-working young man, one of eight children to a mother who worked three jobs to support her family. Does Duke Williams have some Hollywood in him? Wouldn't you if you had that kind of talent? But it's good to know that the receiver has been humbled and reminded that team comes first.
It appears that Duke Williams fulfilled his requirements to return to the team by not horsing around. He knows that to be a man he needs to be held accountable. Let's hope that Williams has learned from his mistakes and poor judgment, for not only a stupendous Auburn season but a future NFL career is on the line.