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Minnesota rookie making a name for himself

December 31, 1997

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) _ Tony Williams sounds like Reggie White, with a low, raspy voice. Williams also resembles John Randle in stature and on-field intensity.

And that’s not all the Minnesota Vikings’ rookie defensive tackle has in common with those two stars. Lately he’s playing like a Pro Bowl lineman, too.

One of four rookies the Vikings inserted into their starting defense three weeks ago, Williams had four tackles for losses in last weekend’s 23-22 playoff win over the New York Giants. He has been a significant part of Minnesota’s defensive resurgence in recent weeks.

``Anytime you go in and get four tackles for a loss, regardless of what year player you are, that means you’re a pretty good player,″ coach Dennis Green said Tuesday. ``And in a playoff game it’s outstanding.″

With Randle, a perennial Pro Bowl tackle, shifted to right end, Williams is starting at Randle’s familiar tackle spot. After being deactivated for 10 consecutive games, Williams started his first career game against Detroit with a playoff berth on the line Dec. 14.

Williams made what at the time seemed like a game-turning play that day, stopping Barry Sanders for a loss on a fourth-down play from the 1 in the third quarter. The Lions went on to win that game in the final seconds, but Minnesota qualified for the postseason against Indianapolis the following week.

Williams, a fifth-round draft pick out of Memphis, stood out again against the Giants as the Vikings stuffed New York’s powerful running game for their first playoff win since 1988. The Vikings (10-7) play at San Francisco (13-3) in a divisional playoff game Saturday.

``Tony had proven, at least in practice and in everything that he has been going, that he is a playmaker and can find the ball, has good instincts,″ defensive coordinator Foge Fazio said. ``So we were hoping that we’d get as many plays out of him as we could, but you never know. He’s a young guy, he could hyperventilate a little bit. But he came through for us.″

Williams’ play alongside nose tackle Jerry Ball has allowed the Vikings to keep Randle at right end. He had five sacks there in his first two games and won his first NFL sack title with 15 1/2. He had just one assisted tackle against the Giants while Williams dominated the line.

Asked if Williams has played well enough to keep Randle outside next season and beyond, Green hedged. What’s best for Randle, not Williams, will be the first consideration.

``Whatever we do, it will start with where’s the best place for Johnny,″ Green said. ``Then we’ll take it from there.″

Williams is one of several new players San Francisco is having to prepare for this week.

Coach Steve Mariucci, whose team has struggled running the ball since Garrison Hurst broke his collarbone in late November, knows he won’t see the same Minnesota defense the 49ers beat 28-17 on Dec. 7.

Williams is a significant part of that.

``He’s doing a good job,″ Mariucci said. ``He’s got a good motor. They flip him from side to side opposite Jerry Ball, and I think he’s going to be a good player.″

For his part, the 6-foot-1, 290-pound Williams was just glad to have a chance to play these last weeks. Standing on the sidelines for 10 straight games was difficult, but he was encouraged by assurances from Green that he would get his chance eventually.

``I accepted my role. I didn’t like it, but I had to accept it,″ Williams said. ``I mean, there’s no bad jobs in the NFL.″

Does he still feel like a role player?

``I’ve just got a bigger role now,″ he said.

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