By Jason Chlapek
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON – Wherever an opposing ball-carrier is, linebacker Eric Henri seems to follow on the prowl. And not too far behind Henri, or sometimes beating him to the chase, is free safety Derrick Williams.
The senior duo of Mary Hardin-Baylor defenders have the Cru on a quest toward the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl to determine the NCAA Division III national championship. But, standing in the way of the Cru today will be the Presidents.
No, not George W. Bush or his father, George H.W. Bush. Not Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, or President-elect Barack Obama for that matter.
The Presidents standing in the way of UMHB (11-1) and its road to the Stagg Bowl are the ones who suit up for Washington & Jefferson College. The Cru and the Presidents square off at noon today at Tiger Field in Belton, marking the third time in five years the teams have met. with UMHB claiming both previous meetings.
Despite the Cru's recent success against W&J, Williams and Henri aren't taking the opposition lightly.
"Their quarterback (Bobby Swallow) has great accuracy and will give us a challenge," Williams said. "We saw him two years ago, but he's a lot better now."
Swallow has thrown for more than 3,500 yards and 36 touchdowns this season with just five interceptions.
"They throw the ball a lot and they have size," Henri said. "Teams from up north tend to be bigger whereas teams from down south tend to be faster. We'll have to use our speed to our advantage."
Speed has helped the Cru in several games this season, particularly last week during a 46-14 rout of Wesley in which the high-octane Wolverines were limited to a season-low 14 points and scored just once on offense. Not only did UMHB limit Wesley's star receiver, Larry Beavers, to just three catches for 40 yards, it also gave up just 19 rushing yards, recorded seven sacks and forced six turnovers.
Henri returned a pair of fumbles for touchdowns as well.
"Last week was a statement game for us," Henri said. "We were the underdogs going in and we wanted to prove that we were legit contenders for the national title."
Henri leads UMHB in tackles with 84, and also has 11 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and four fumble recoveries. He also is one of three players who played on the 2004 national runner-up team as Paul Allen and James Jenkins are the other two members of that team.
After a promising freshman season, Henri suffered from academic trouble in the spring 2005 semester and did not return to UMHB until spring 2006. Although he missed the 2005 season, Henri believes it was a lesson learned.
"I was a young pup then and made some mistakes," he said. "But I came back a stronger person and had more focus."
Henri, the son of Liberian immigrants, has lived in three different states – Maryland, Georgia and Texas. He went to high school in Lake Dallas.
Henri also started school a year early, which means he graduated high school at the age of 17.
"I've always been the youngest one in my class so I've always strived to be the best," he said. "But what's weird about that is I've always been one of the biggest kids in the class despite being the youngest."
While Henri has spent time living in three different states, Williams has lived in Temple most of his life, just a stone's throw from UMHB.
"It's cool to go to UMHB and still be close to all of my family and friends," Williams said. "It's almost like high school again because I see a lot of the same people at UMHB games that I saw at Temple High games."
UMHB plays its home games at Belton High School's Tiger Field, and when Williams played at Tiger Field as a member of the Cru, he was treated to a bit of a culture shock.
"It was weird being in Belton's home locker room after being in the visiting locker room my sophomore and senior years (of high school)," he said. "I didn't know how to react to all that Belton red, and it took me a while to accept the fact that Tiger Field was my home field."
Williams played under a pair of coaches in high school – David Beal his freshman and sophomore years and Tam Hollingshead his junior and senior. Both coaches had different philosophies, but Williams was able to shape his game around both styles.
"Coach Beal played platoon football and all I played was cornerback, but coach Hollingshead played everyone both ways and I got to play cornerback and tailback," he said. "Their defensive philosophies were different, too. Beal was more man-to-man, while Hollingshead ran Cover 2."
Despite playing cornerback throughout high school, Williams has not played the position at UMHB. He played Cru-back (strong safety) his first two years before moving to free safety as a junior.
Williams has a team-high five interceptions to go with 81 tackles this season.
While he had changed positions, Williams, a senior, has not experienced a coaching change as Pete Fredenburg has been the head honcho of the Cru all four years.
"The coaches here have taught me how to be a leader, and have inspired me to go into coaching," Williams said. "But right now, we're focused on getting to the Stagg Bowl. We were so close last year that anything less is unacceptable. We don't want this ride to end."