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Older players bring real-life experiences to ACC

Associated Press Modified: October 10, 2012 at 4:17 pm •  Published: October 10, 2012
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"I wasn't, obviously, brought here on my five-star capabilities," Rodriguez said. "But what I've been through as a man and what I can relate and pass to these guys that are younger than I, having my experience and the hardships I've gone through and overcome, it's definitely something that the guys look up to me for."

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Rodriguez, who has one catch and has played primarily on special teams for the reigning ACC champions, is "inspirational."

"He's been a sergeant of 20 or 40 men in real life and now he's in the locker room with a bunch of 18- to 22-year-old guys who don't really have life figured out yet," Swinney said.

At North Carolina, Williams said he struggled in high school and did enough to graduate with his class. He then worked in a factory making radiator parts for large trucks before deciding it wasn't for him and that he would try to play football.

There weren't many options — he had played only one year of high school football — and he ended up walking on at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College armed only with his work ethic and the belief that "there was something more out there for me in life than there was at that factory."

He thrived, became an all-conference pick and ended up at North Carolina as a starting defensive tackle with a team-high five sacks.

Kareem Martin, one of Williams' line mates, said watching Williams has taught him a clear lesson: "You don't want to lose this opportunity."

"I just kind of tell guys, a lot of guys got here, it was easy for them to get here because they went to the big-time high schools," Williams said. "... Everybody's not going to play in the NFL, just like not everybody's going to play Division I. But you're able to get a free education from the University of North Carolina. Just take advantage of it."

Williams, who turns 24 next month, even recently pulled the UNC walk-ons aside, telling them he had been in their shoes and they could set themselves apart by working hard every day.

First-year coach Larry Fedora hopes it's a message that sticks with them beyond college.

"I've never been on a team where everybody has the same background, either economically or socially or anything," Fedora said. "And so that's the great thing about being part of a team or a football family: learning from others, learning from the mistakes of others, learning from the positive things of others. ... That's what the real world is all about."

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AP Sports Writers Joedy McCreary in Chapel Hill and Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., and Associated Press writer Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.