ATHENS — Willie Martinez calls them the odd couple, and in terms of personality, it’s an apt moniker.
There’s Darryl Gamble, the junior linebacker, the calm and quiet elder statesman. He’s not a trash talker on the field, and he’s not much of a talker at all off it. He lets his play speak for him, and for as long as Nick Williams can remember, Gamble’s play spoke volumes.
A sophomore and newly converted linebacker, Williams has spent most of his life looking up to Gamble, but Williams hasn’t exactly modeled his personality after his mentor. Williams wears a broad smile nearly all the time, and his bubbly personality spills over into an on-field approach that borders on manic.
They’re polar opposites, but they balance each other perfectly.
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“He’s kind of conservative,” Williams said. “He doesn’t have to be wild, but I have to show my emotions. But it compliments us because sometimes when he needs someone to pick him up, I’ll be there. Or when he’s telling me to calm down, he’ll calm me down.”
Calming down Williams has been an on-going concern, and he’s well aware of his shortcoming. But while his energy occasionally gets in the way of his success, it has also been the bedrock upon which his game is built.
Williams was recruited as a safety and played mainly on special teams a year ago. By November, however, Georgia’s linebacking corps was growing increasingly thin, with Gamble, Akeem Dent and Rennie Curran the only players consistently healthy at the position.
There were two advantages to giving Williams a shot at linebacker. For one, he was big. He played tough, and he liked to hit. Physically, he could handle the job.
More importantly, however, was his attitude. Williams was a bundle of energy, and he hit the ground running immediately after making the switch. He didn’t know much of the playbook at his new position, but he knew where the football was, and he went after it hard.
“Anything he does, he can’t sit still, and we like that,” Martinez said. “But it’s trying to calm him in times when he’s got to focus, he’s learning it.”
As Williams’ game has developed and he has learned more of the defensive plays, he has found he needs to balance that energy with patience — a character trait that often fails him in moments when the excitement level on the field reaches its crescendo.
“That’s my weak point, just being able to calm down and think about what I’ve got to do,” Williams said. “I know I’m going to play fast and run hard, but in some situations I just have to calm down and go through my reads and make good decisions. If I’m too worked up, I can’t think about my job at hand.”
That’s where Gamble has made a big impact.
From the first time Williams stepped onto the field with Gamble as members of the Bainbridge High School defense, Williams knew he was in the presence of someone special.
Back in those days, Williams said, everyone treated Gamble with an unquestioned sense of respect and awe. Gamble was good, and he played hard all the time. He didn’t need to say much. His lessons were explained with each hit on an opposing ball carrier, and when he did speak, everyone knew to listen.
“He was the same, but people just followed him,” Williams said. “He didn’t really say much, but run that ball, and he’ll let you know he was on the field.”
At Georgia, however, Gamble had to earn respect. Success didn’t come as easily, and his reserved nature tended to leave him in the shadows of his more experienced teammates. Leadership seemed a long way off.
When Williams arrived on campus two years later, however, there was never a question of whether Gamble had earned the right to become a leader. With his old teammate, it was just assumed.
Gamble said things are changing in Bainbridge, that the town has a Wal-Mart now, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds. But the truth is, it’s still a small town, the type of place where people are expected to take care of their own. In grade school, Williams’ father had coached Gamble, and the families remained close. Now that Williams was in Athens, it was understood that Williams would be in his care.
“I look out for everyone on the team, but I do feel like I look out for Nick a little more,” Gamble said. “I would never want him to get in trouble and have to go back to Bainbridge and have people say ‘Where was Darryl?’ and ‘Why didn’t he help you out?’ so I look out for Nick a little more than anyone else.”
Gamble dishes out plenty of football lessons. He helps Williams know what to do on a given play, studies the playbook with his protégé and keeps him calm during those frenetic moments when Williams’ emotions get the best of him.
There’s plenty of advice dispensed off the field, too — school issues, girl problems, Gamble handles it all in exchange for a ride home to Bainbridge from time to time.
After three years of being the quiet one, Gamble relishes his role as the wise old veteran again.
“Now that he’s at Georgia, I’m the first person he’ll come to when he needs advice,” Gamble said. “It’s good that I can give him some now that I’ve been here for three years, and he’s doing great.”
They both are. Williams was among the most improved players during spring practice. Although he’ll have a hard time passing Curran on the depth chart at weakside linebacker, coaches were impressed and expect a significant impact for Williams when he gets on the field.
For Gamble, he’s no longer an understudy. He sees himself as a leader again. After a 2008 season marked by memorable moments but a lack of consistency, Gamble said he’s ready to take a step forward this season. He has even played some stand-up defensive end, working on his pass-rush techniques.
It’s just like it was back in Bainbridge, a symbiotic relationship that allows two good players to be even better when they’re playing together.
“They’re as two opposites as you can find personality-wise,” Martinez said, “but they’ve got great heart.”