Markell Williams is perceptive.
It's one reason he's such a good football player.
As a senior nickel back for Sacramento State, Williams is adept at reading offenses and making plays.
During his five-year career with the Hornets, the 5-foot-8, 190-pound Williams has made 123 tackles, had 2 1/2 sacks and intercepted two passes. He also returned a blocked punt 30 yards for a touchdown in a victory against Montana in 2011.
Williams is capable in the classroom, too. He has been a Big Sky Conference All-Academic selection the past three years. Last spring, he earned a 4.0 grade-point average.
Earlier this month Williams was named a semifinalist for the 2014 William V. Campbell Trophy, which recognizes the top student-athlete in college football.
To be considered, an athlete must have a GPA of at least 3.2 on a 4.0 scale, be a key contributor on the football team and demonstrate strong leadership and citizenship.
"Markell is one of the favorite kids that I have coached here at Sac State, from a student-athlete perspective," said Hornets head coach Marshall Sperbeck, in his seventh season. "He does everything right as far as on and off the field and in the classroom.
"Other kids on our team look up to him as a leader, look up to him as a role model because of the way he conducts himself."
Impressive stuff for someone who seemingly had the odds stacked against him growing up.
His mother was 15 when she gave birth to Markell. Yet, Williams created a life of discipline and learning.
"I have an older brother going down the wrong path," Williams said. "So I've learned from his mistakes. I'm trying to make better choices."
Williams said he has been fortunate to have a number of positive role models growing up, none more influential than Mike Papadopoulos, his football and track coach at Vacaville High School.
"The biggest thing he taught me is that sports are more than just a game," Williams said. "It's life. Things that apply to the game like discipline, focus apply to life.
"More than anything, he helped me become a better young man."
Papadopoulos, a Cal-Hi State Coach of the Year and CIF State Model Coach recipient, also left an indelible impression on Williams.
"I just admired the way he carried himself, the way he was around his family, the way he talked to people," Williams said. "He's had a big influence on our school and community. I wanted to be that way, to follow in his footsteps."
He now sees himself as a role model, not only for his Sac State teammates but for his younger siblings, sister Nyree, 14, and brothers Tre, 10, and Tyris, 2.
"I just developed this drive to want to do better," Williams said. "I want to set the bar high so they can achieve even better."
Lightly recruited out of high school, he jumped at the chance to walk on at Sac State, partly because of encouragement from former Bulldogs Zack Nash and Peter Buck (a Campbell semifinalist in 2011), both of whom starred for the Hornets. Nash now is on the Arizona Cardinals' practice squad.
By his sophomore season, Williams had earned a scholarship.
He has started the past 18 games for the Hornets (3-3, 2-0) and has helped them to their best Big Sky Conference start in history. They'll try to extend their conference win streak to three games tonight against visiting Northern Arizona.
Williams has maintained his high standards on the field despite sometimes having to cram for exams.
After a recent Wednesday night practice, he studied until 3 a.m. for an exam later in the day in his "Issues in Courts and Prison" class. It was worth it. He said he got an A.
Williams will graduate in December with a degree in sociology. As one of 170 Campbell Trophy semifinalists, he's a candidate to receive an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship.
That would be nice to apply to his next educational goal of earning a master's degree in organizational leadership.
But first he'll focus on becoming a firefighter.
"A lot of people have helped me in my life, so I want to give back to others, and I think that's the best way to do it," Williams said. "There's also the brotherhood. As football is winding down, that's something I don't want to lose."
NORTHERN ARIZONA (3-2, 1-1) AT SACRAMENTO STATE (3-3, 2-0)
Where: Hornet Stadium (21,195)
When: 6:05 p.m.
Lumberjacks at a glance: Northern Arizona has relied on its Big Sky Conference-best defense that has scored more touchdowns (six) than the offense (five). Senior running back Zach Bauman, who rushed for 246 yards in a 27-26 win over the Hornets in 2011 and is trying for his fourth 1,000-yard rushing season, is finding the going tough this year since the graduation of quarterback Cary Grossart, a former Folsom High standout. Bauman has rushed for 422 yards he had just 26 in last Saturday's 36-7 loss to Montana State as teams key on him. Sophomore Kyren Poe has thrown five interceptions and just two touchdown passes.
Hornets at a glance: Quarterback Garrett Safron is coming off a 312-yard, three-touchdown passing performance in a 37-21 win over Northern Colorado that earned him Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors. DeAndre Carter is tied for the Football Championship Subdivision lead with 10 touchdown catches and also has run for a 12-yard score. True freshman Jordan Robinson and 230-pound junior Brandon Kellermann (Bella Vista High School, Sierra College) made their debuts as a running back tandem last week. They give the Hornets an intriguing one-two punch of speed and power, combining for 154 rushing yards and a touchdown. Robinson also had three catches for 62 yards.
Series: Northern Arizona leads 9-7. Sacramento State won 40-10 in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 2010. The following year, NAU won 27-26 in Sacramento. The teams did not play last season.
TODAY'S OTHER AREA GAMES
UC Davis: vs. Montana, 4 p.m., 1140
Stanford: at Utah, 3 p.m., PAC12, 1050
Cal: at UCLA, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2, 810, 950
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.