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East Lansing — When Marcus Rush broke through the line in the fourth quarter of last season's Cotton Bowl and got his hand on the field-goal attempt of Baylor's Chris Callahan, it was probably fitting it landed in the hands of safety RJ Williamson.

The Michigan State safety snatched the fluttering ball out of the air and raced up the field 36 yards to the Baylor 45-yard line. Only 1:05 was left on the clock with the Spartans trailing, 41-35.

Eight plays after Williamson had the ball nestled in his hands, Connor Cook connected with Keith Mumphery for a 10-yard touchdown pass and the extra point from Michael Geiger gave the Spartans a thrilling victory.

It was just one of many big plays Williamson has made in his career, the latest a 64-yard fumble return for a touchdown in last week's victory over Air Force.

"The ball just seems to find him," co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said last Saturday.

It was the third touchdown of the fifth-year senior's career after returning interceptions for touchdowns last season against Michigan and Maryland. And it was the same type of highlight-reel plays he's been making since his redshirt freshman season when an acrobatic, one-handed interception at the goal line helped Michigan State beat Boise State in the 2012 season-opener, the first game of his career.

It was a glimpse of what was to come over the next three-plus seasons from Williamson.

"Yeah, he's a big-play guy," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "He has been a big-play guy for us for a number of years. He's got a knack for picking off the ball, he's had runs for touchdowns here, obviously the big scoop last week. So, he's been a big-play guy for us and he's a guy that understands all the different basic necessities in the back end."

Williamson just shrugs now when asked about the big plays. He doesn't think he's doing anything special, even though he was named National Defensive Player of the Week by the Football Writers Association of America.

"It's crazy," Williamson said. "All I can say is I'm in the right spot at the right time. I feel like any guy in that position, if they were there, could probably make that play. But it boils down to being blessed, in my eyes. It was just my turn to make those plays and my chance to be in the spotlight a little bit. I'm thankful for it."

It hasn't always been the easiest path for the 6-foot, 215-pounder from Dayton, Ohio, one of many Michigan State players from Ohio who never received any real interest from Ohio State. But when he got to Michigan State as a three-star recruit in 2011, it was clear he could make a difference.

In the fall of 2012, he battled Kurtis Drummond for time at safety and became a regular contributor in the secondary and played extensively in the Rose Bowl season of 2013.

He entered 2014 a clear starter and had high expectations, but a slow start, including a difficult game in the loss at Oregon, eventually led him to losing his starting spot to true freshman Montae Nicholson. It lasted three games, and Williamson says now that was a turning point for him.

"I needed it," Williamson said. "I think that helped me become a better player and a better man. It gave me time to step back and realize there are things you take for granted a little bit, not that I was taking it too much for granted, but it can be taken away from you in the blink of an eye. I'm thankful for that."

It provided enough motivation for Williamson to finish last year strong and head into his final season ready to have his best year yet.

But more motivation awaited. Williamson said the summer was full of challenges and when he wasn't named a captain just before this season, it enhanced his drive.

"No disrespect to any of my teammates because I love them," Williamson said, "but being selected captain was one of those things I valued and strived for as a senior. When I didn't get that opportunity, it was just another little chip on my shoulder."

As No. 2 Michigan State prepares to face Central Michigan on Saturday, it will be happy to do so with a motivated Williamson.

"He has a great understanding and he's sort of a leader back there," Dantonio said. "Not sort of, he's a leader back there."

His leadership is clear even without the title of captain. And what's even clearer is a motivated Williamson is ready for the ball to find him again, another big play waiting to be made.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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