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— Mark Dantonio has always said he will play the best players.

It hasn't mattered what class a player is in, how many starts they've had or what they've accomplished in the past.

As he says often, "We have to live in the moment."

And for junior safety RJ Williamson, that moment as a starter appeared to have passed. After a rough start to the season, Williamson was replaced in the starting lineup by true freshman Montae Nicholson in the Big Ten opener against Nebraska.

"It was hard," Williamson admitted. "I wanted to be out there, but life goes on. Everybody faces adversity. The ones who can persevere through that and keep pushing through those hard times make a great man and a great player. I just kept my head held high. I knew I was a better player than I was showing. I knew my time would come around and I would get another chance out there and I would have to make the best of it."

That chance just happened to come last week against Michigan.

Nicholson hadn't done anything especially wrong, but Williamson had upped his play in practice and in what had become limited time in games that the coaching staff moved him back in the starting lineup.

And in the third quarter, he intercepted a Devin Gardner pass and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown that essentially put the Wolverines away.

"I had the opportunity to compete and help this ball club win games," Williamson said after the game. "When you're playing with a leader like Kurtis Drummond next to you, you get yourself in the right positions to make plays. It felt good to come out here and get this win."

It was a defining moment for Williamson, who never felt sorry for himself during his time coming off the bench. In fact, much of his time was spent mentoring Nicholson, something the coaching staff praised Williamson for.

"At the end of the day, we are a team," Williamson said. "We're all trying to achieve one goal — that Big Ten championship, bowl game wins, whatever it is. We need each and everybody doing the right thing at the right time to make that happen. Just because I wasn't a starter I was still able to play. … Whether (Nicholson) asked me or not I was trying to help him out throughout the game, throughout practice and I wanted the best for him."

While Nicholson was playing well, Williamson was also leaning on Drummond, one of his closest friends and a fellow safety.

They had been through the same type of position battle two years ago with each other and Jairus Jones, a battle Drummond ultimately won.

And as Williamson was fighting to get back in the starting lineup, Drummond did what he could to help, constantly encouraging Williamson. And when the two were back on the field last week, it produced one of their best games as they combined for 10 tackles, two pass breakups, the interception and a tackle for loss.

"It was only difficult because how close of friends me and RJ are," Drummond said. "We've been around each other since he's been on campus and just the type of friendship we have off the field and the type of chemistry we have, it is fun to play together."

It was evident last week and the Spartans hope that continues over the final four games of the regular season.

"He just kept himself about business, continued to try to improve," Dantonio said of Williamson. "I think he's lost a little bit of weight, he's moving quicker out there and also I think his confidence is high. He understands what to do and he understands the magnitude of it. He's confident."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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