MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers running back Rodrick Williams Jr. earned the nickname "Nugget" before he ever set foot on a college field. The moniker came about after the Lewisville, Tex., native ate 50 chicken nuggets from McDonald’s during his recruiting visit to Minnesota.
Though the nickname has stuck, chicken nuggets — and plenty of other unhealthy foods — are now gone from Williams’ diet. As he enters his senior year, Williams has a real shot to be the Gophers’ starting running back. But playing at a weight of 247 pounds was not ideal.
So Williams committed himself to losing weight after Minnesota’s loss in the Citrus Bowl. Thanks in large part to team nutritionist Brittany Francis, Williams shed 20 pounds and is now down to 227 pounds during spring ball.
"I feel faster," Williams said Thursday. "I don’t get tired as easily. At first I was worried about not being able to hit somebody because I was lighter. But the first day when we were practicing with pads, it just felt the same. Still the same mentality."
Thursday’s practice came just a few days after the University of Minnesota’s spring break, during which Williams admits he "went to work on some food." He gets one cheat day a week, but otherwise sticks to a strict plain laid out by Francis.
For breakfast, it’s eggs, maybe a piece of sausage, and lots of fruit. Once Williams has his lunch in the middle of the day, he’s done eating carbs the rest of the day. Dinner mainly consists of meat and vegetables.
That menu is a far cry from the 50 chicken nuggets he was eating on campus a few years ago.
"I went from eating all the stuff that I liked to eat, and I didn’t think I was eating too bad," Williams said. "But then after Brittany starts putting you on the nutrition plan, you start to think, ‘Dang, I was kind of eating all that stuff.’ I guess I was eating a lot of carbs and stuff like that."
The hope now is that the new-and-improved Williams can carry the workload in the backfield. He has the most career carries of any running back on the Gophers’ roster, with sophomore Berkley Edwards the only other with any experience. Now as Minnesota looks for someone to fill the void after the graduation of workhorse back David Cobb, Williams hopes to be the answer.
As a junior last year and the third back on the depth chart behind Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood, Williams finished with just 23 carries for 114 yards. However, he made the most out of his limited opportunities. He ran for a big touchdown late in Minnesota’s win against Nebraska, and also scored on his only carry of the Citrus Bowl, a 20-yard touchdown up the middle.
Williams had more carries as a freshman (57) and sophomore (60) before seeing Cobb shoulder the load for Minnesota’s offense in 2014. But just like Cobb had to be patient after he, too, was buried on the depth chart, the Gophers coaches have seen a similar maturation process from Williams as he enters his senior year.
"Rodrick, he’s a guy that I couldn’t be more proud of anybody on this team as I am of Rodrick," said Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. "He dedicated himself. He lost weight in the offseason. He’s been a model citizen, model guy as far as in the locker room. He’s becoming a leader.
"I don’t want to pin this all on him or do this, but he’s making the kind of change that David Cobb did as far as seeing the light. We’re all real happy with the progress Rodrick’s made."
Williams said he learned a lot from Cobb over the last few years and wasn’t bitter when his teammate emerged as the team’s No. 1 back. Among the lessons Cobb taught Williams: you can’t get tired. Cobb would remind Williams of that whenever he saw him with his hands on his hips in practice, trying to catch his breath.
Now that Williams is 20 pounds lighter and eating healthier, that shouldn’t be an issue. He feels ready to take the ball and run as often as Minnesota needs him to.
"This is my last year, so it’s now or never," Williams said. "Basically you’ve just got to mature. If they need me to lose weight, I’ve got to lose the weight. If they need me to run the ball 30 times, I’ve got to do that. Basically, it’s just all for my team, whatever I can do."
As for a new nickname? Williams said he doesn’t have one just yet.