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Raphael ‘Poppi’ Williams Wants to be the Next Biletnikoff Winner



Pitt wide receiver Poppi Williams.

Raphael Williams’ header photo on X (formerly known as Twitter) is a picture of himself standing in the lobby outside the Pitt cafeteria in the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. There’s a wall on the left, opposite the cafe, that showcases the individual honors accumulated over the years.

Heisman, Maxwell, Walter Camp, Bednarik, Outland, Biletnikoff. Just about every individual honor there is. Williams is standing toward the left side of the wall in his header, his gaze firmly fixed on the Biletnikoff Award, which is given to the best wide receiver in college football.

Williams wants to win the Biletnikoff. He wants — badly — to be the fourth Panthers wideout to do so. It’s part of the reason why he decided to come to Pitt.

Williams — a 5-foot-10, 165-pound wideout who committed to Pitt in January — wants to be the best. And when he decided to enter the transfer portal and leave San Diego State over the winter, it was his connection with new offensive coordinator Kade Bell that helped guide his process. The pair are on the same page offensively.

“(Bell) knows my goal,” Williams said earlier this month at his introductory press conference. “He knows I want to play in the NFL — be the best. I wanna win the Biletnikoff and everything, so he just holds me to a higher standard. Just makes sure I do all the little things right, whether it’s a yard short on the depth or helping others with the playbook, he just really helps everybody around us. Just pushing everyone to his standard.”

Williams initially committed to play for Bell at Tusculum (D-II) in 2020, playing in the COVID-19-shortened spring season in 2021, and when Bell left for Western Carolina, Williams went with him. He’s followed Bell just about his entire journey — aside from the stint at San Diego State last season.

He decided to leave WCU following the 2022 season to pursue football at a higher level and wound up at SDSU, but he was unable to play due to NCAA eligibility rules, so he hit the portal once again following the 2023 season. It was, once again, in pursuit of playing at the highest level.

It certainly didn’t hurt that Bell wound up taking the offensive coordinator position at Pitt around the same time.

“(Bell is) almost like a big brother to me,” Williams said. “Like, he’s teaching me everything, he can relate. He can understand me, I can understand him, so that relationship helps.”

Williams had received interest from a handful of schools upon entering the portal, but it was Pitt all the way. And since he’s arrived in Pittsburgh, alongside former Western Carolina stars C.J. Lee and Desmond Reid, he’s been able to serve as a teacher on the football field. It’s still early in the offseason, with spring ball a few weeks off, but Williams can set the tone in meetings and during walkthroughs — and in individual training sessions.

The wideouts, and really the entire offense, meet up on Wednesdays and Saturdays right now. It’s practicing concepts, running routes and slowly adapting to the new up-tempo offensive scheme that Bell runs. Williams knows how Bell wants things done, and make sure to let everyone know how Bell likes to have fun.

“I tell them to have a little swag to them, I know they’re accustomed to something different, so I told them to have a little swag, be yourself,” Williams said.

“I love Konata (Mumpfield), I love DaeDae (Reynolds), and all them guys have been helping me come in. Hard workers, definitely hard workers and we’re definitely going to push each other to get to that next stage. Sometimes we go in the indoor late at night, 10 p.m. on a Saturday and we get extra catches, so it’s been a smooth transition with the guys.”

Williams hasn’t played since his 2022 campaign at WCU, and he’s excited — maybe hungry is a better word — to finally get back on the football field and show what he can do. He left WCU initially because he wanted to play football at the highest level. FBS football. He loves the game and has that burning desire to be the best of the best — compete against the best of the best. He’ll have that opportunity at Pitt.

He was solid as a true freshman at Tusculum, but it was his time at Western Carolina that stood out. He caught 117 passes for 1,572 yards (13.4 yards per reception) and 14 touchdowns in two seasons at WCU.

Williams played almost exclusively in the slot during his time at Western Carolina, 929 of 972 passing down snaps, and he racked up 3.8 YAC/reception, averaged 1.74 yards per routes run and hauled in 7-of-18 contested catch targets during his time as a Catamount.

He operated most effectively in the intermediate passing range, hauling in 19-of-29 targets for 273 yards (14.4 yards per reception) and three touchdowns on passes 10 to 19 yards downfield — but served as a deep ball threat, too, averaging 49.6 yards per reception on catches at least 20 yards downfield.

Williams prides himself on his route running. He’s a smooth, shifty runner who has been able to create a lot of separation at the college level. Of course, he hasn’t spent a lot of time against Power Four defensive backs, but that sort of ability doesn’t just go away. It helps that he’s basically able to teach Bell’s offense at this point, too.

At 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, Williams isn’t the biggest receiver out there, but he doesn’t need to be. The game of football isn’t what it once was, and in an up-tempo offense like Bell runs, you need wideouts like Williams. Bell certainly isn’t worried about his size.

“He don’t care about the size, and it’s really just the dog in you,” Williams said. “We play fast, me and CJ (Lee), we have fun and we play aggressively. We’re smaller, but it’s hard to check us.”

It’s about speed. Williams has it. It’s about separation. Williams can do it. It’s about whether or not the Pitt quarterback, Nate Yarnell at this point in the offseason, will be able to get Williams and the offensive playmakers the football when the season finally rolls around.

“It’s football, 11 man sport, so it’s definitely a team thing,” Williams said. “You really just wanna go fast pace, catch the defense off balance; they’re tired, and we’re just going faster. Light the scoreboard up, put up as many points.

“Expect to be coached hard, expect to play hard and have fun. One thing about Kade Bell is he loves for everyone to have fun, play fast and play your style. He’s not going to really try to change your style, he’ll let you be you.”

Bell gets his playmakers the ball. That’s what was said about Frank Cignetti Jr., too. So, any reservations are understandable. It’s fun now, but until it actually translates on the football field, it’s just speculation. But like his offensive coordinator, Williams is confident. He believes in himself, in Bell and the potential of the Pitt offense.

He likes to go by Poppi. It’s what his mom calls him. Raphael “Poppi” Williams Jr. — the son of Rachel Sims. And if he achieves his goals, it will be Poppi Williams the Biletnikoff Award winner and NFL Draft pick.

There’s a lot to be done before that can even be considered, but Williams dreams big. And he’s taken every step (Division II to FCS to FBS to Power Four) in order to achieve those dreams.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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1 month ago

I hope he does win it and plays in the NFL. I would not want a receiver without those lofty goals. On the other hand, he is at an institution of higher learning that will greatly benefit him should those dreams be dashed. Go chase those dreams young man! Win those one-on-one balls and give every play your best effort. We have not seen a wide out do that since Addison a few years back. No one who would win that one-on-one match up consistently or they would drop catches that should be made, or not give those tough to… Read more »

1 month ago
Reply to  Bob

Block and Tackle, U.Michigan, UGA …. last three National Champions

1 month ago

I like this young man already. Teammate!

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