LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Willie Williams walks into the room, shakes hands and smiles.
"How you doing? Nice to meet you," the Louisville linebacker said, gold teeth flashing.
This affable guy is the same player who nicknamed himself "The Predator" back when he was terrorizing high school ballcarriers in South Florida? The player whose off-field problems made him infamous before he ever played a down for the University of Miami?
Sorry, that was the old Willie Williams, the one who was arrested 11 times before he graduated high school.
"I feel like 'The Predator,' but I'm more like an alien now," he said. "I'm like something from another dimension."
His odyssey has led him to Louisville.
After being one of the most prized recruits in the country in 2004, Williams spent two years at Miami trying to live down his reputation off the field and up to his reputation on it. Off the field, he was OK. On it, he was a bust.
"It felt like they weren't getting 100 percent of Willie Williams because I was born and raised down there and there was a lot of distractions and everything," he said. "I felt like I had to get out of it a little bit."
Williams transferred to West Los Angeles Community College eager to flee the temptations of his hometown. He found peace and perspective out west under coach Craig Austin, a police officer with a reputation for helping troubled young men.
It didn't take long for Williams to walk into the spare dorm rooms, the quiet campus and realize he wasn't in Miami anymore. He had to buy his own cleats, gloves and wristbands and abide by the same rules as his less-heralded teammates.
"I think it was an eye-opener," Austin said. "He was accustomed to first class accommodations. Here he was just another student and aware of what could happen if he made a wrong decision."
Williams describes his relationship with Austin as more father-son than coach-player, and said the time out West allowed him to refocus his priorities before he became another cautionary tale.
"Me being all the way in Cali on my own and everything, away from my family for the first time, it helped me grow and learn different things," Williams said.
Namely, how lucky he was and how if he was going to grow up, he needed to stop passing blame for his off-the-field transgressions.
"A lot of the stuff was kind of petty and I learned from the situations and grew," he said. "Yes, it did happen. I did some things in the past. It was mistakes but I learned from them."
Still, when it came time to head back to big-time football, Williams knew his past would not be forgotten.
Miami took considerable criticism when it admitted Williams after his past became known, and he expected more of the same when it was time to transfer out of West Los Angeles.
He found an ally in longtime friend Nate Harris, a former Miami recruit whose scholarship was pulled by the Hurricanes after he was arrested for his involvement in an armed robbery. Harris spent two years in junior college before moving on to Louisville, where he starred for two years, helping the Cardinals win the Big East and the Orange Bowl last year. Harris now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs.
"Nate went through some similar situations as me and everything and I saw him come here and become successful, so I was like, 'It's a great program,'" Williams said.
If Williams needed further proof, he got it while watching the Cardinals thump the Hurricanes 31-7 last year.
"I saw what they did to UM so I was like 'Man, that's where I need to be at,'" he said.
It wasn't that simple. Wary of the risk, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich and coach Steve Kragthorpe talked extensively with Williams, his family, and Austin, getting assurances from all that Williams' troubled past was behind him.
"He's very captivating," Kragthorpe said. "I think he's very genuine and Willie will admit that he has made some mistakes in his life. But he wants an opportunity to continue to distance himself from those things. Since Willie's been here, he's been tremendous."
He's also been somewhat anonymous. In fact, he's not even the only Willie Williams on the team. Senior defensive tackle Willie Williams outranks him, so "The Predator" is now Willie A. Williams in the program.
"I didn't know what to expect," defensive tackle Earl Heyman said. "I just knew 'new guy in the locker room.' You could tell right away that he's a good person. He's up-tempo. He's always ready to go."
Even if he hasn't had a chance to showcase it on the field yet. An illness at the end of camp forced him to miss Louisville's season opener, and he played only a couple of series in last week's 58-42 win over Middle Tennessee.
"Just being out there the first time helped get all the butterflies out," he said. "You just get your feet wet and now I'm ready to get my body wet."
He'll get his chance on Saturday when the Cardinals (2-0) play at Kentucky (2-0), a rivalry Williams said could be even more intense that Miami-Florida State, an assessment he probably would've considered ridiculous two years ago, when South Florida was pretty much all he knew.
That was the old Willie, though. The new one is ready to simply go out and play football.
"I feel like this is more calm," he said. "I can just focus on school and football and just do what I got to do to be successful."
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