Southeast senior receiver primed for another big season

Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Warning to the rest of the Ohio Valley Conference: Willie Ponder should be faster, quicker, stronger -- and basically better -- than he was last year.

So declared Southeast Missouri State University's senior wide receiver Tuesday morning at the Indians' annual media day. Full-squad practices begin today.

"I improved every aspect of Willie Ponder over the summer," he said with a big smile.

Ponder appeared to exude confidence -- not show-off cockiness -- as he spoke. His was the look of an athlete who knows he has plenty of natural talent and, through hard work, is trying to squeeze everything possible out of it.

"I worked really hard over the summer," he said. "This is my last season and I want to make it the best I possibly can, even better than last year."

If the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Ponder puts up bigger numbers than he did last year, then the rest of the OVC is in trouble. He took the conference by storm in his first season with the Indians, leading the league in every receiving category and compiling one of the best seasons by a wide out in school history.

Ponder caught 70 passes for 1,090 yards and 11 touchdowns, becoming only the second Southeast player to have more than 1,000 receiving yards in a season and only the third Indian to catch at least 70 passes in a year. He set the school record for receiving touchdowns in a season and tied the school mark for receiving TD's in a game with three on his way to earning NCAA Division I-AA honorable-mention All-American honors.

"Willie had an unbelievable season," Southeast coach Tim Billings said.

And one that becomes bigger considering that, prior to the 2001 campaign, Ponder had not suited up since 1999, when he started a few games as a true freshman at Division I Tulsa.

A native of Tulsa, Okla., Ponder's promising career with his hometown school was derailed when he ran into academic problems. He headed to Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College to get his grades in order, although he did not play football there in 2000.

Ponder got his academics straightened out and, despite having bigger programs to choose from, selected Southeast.

"It was a nice, quiet place and I really liked the coaches," Ponder said.

While Billings had no doubt that Ponder would be able to make an immediate impact with the Indians, Ponder wasn't so sure. Because of the two-year layoff, Ponder said he was a bundle of nerves when the Indians opened last season at Division I Eastern Michigan.

"I don't know if I thought I'd be rusty, but I was nervous and scared after laying out two years," he said. "But I guess I did all right and after that I was fine."

Ponder did more than all right in his Southeast debut. He caught six passes for 120 yards as the Indians nearly upset Eastern Michigan.

After that, there was no stopping Ponder. And it wasn't just the numbers he put up, it was the way he did it. At times he used his sub-4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash to break off long gains, at times he used his exceptional leaping ability to make Randy Moss-type, jump-ball catches over several defenders, and at other times he utilized strength to make tough receptions over the middle.

"Willie is something special, the kind of plays he made last year," Southeast quarterback Jeromy McDowell said. "You don't see players like that come around too often."

Billings, who has coached at a variety of major programs, agrees. And Billings believes Ponder's talents will help give him an opportunity to play in the NFL.

"He could play for just about any college," Billings said. "A lot of it has to do with how he plays this year, but with his size, athletic ability, the way he catches the ball, he's definitely a prospect. He'll get a chance at the next level."

Ponder, who said he has helped develop his game by watching tapes of top NFL receivers, would like to play professionally. But his focus is on helping a program that has not had a winning record since 1994.

"The NFL is a dream, but I know I have to be patient, like my momma tells me," he said. "I know the OVC has us picked low again, but I look at these guys and these coaches, and we're all hungry. I think this is our year and I want to be a big part of it."

(573) 335-6611, extension 132

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