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Eric Williams punts during practice on Thursday morning.

MISSOULA — Eric Williams’ second home has always been Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

Being a Griz has always been in his blood. It’s just the way of life for the Missoula native.

“From Day 1,” Williams said of being a Griz fan. “I was born in July and went to games in September. It was that way every year. I’ve missed four games my whole life. We sat in section 106, row 10, seats like 14 through 16."

He’s not sitting in his childhood seats anymore, though. He’s now the starting punter and kickoff specialist for the Griz.

His first game wearing the Montana uniform came in 2016 during his sophomore season. To him, coming out of the tunnel for the first time meant just that much more, especially since he knew exactly where his family members were sitting.

“It was a surreal experience coming out for the first time,” Williams said. “Coming around the bend and looking up at my family, it gave me goosebumps.”

But Williams didn’t come to Montana straight out of Loyola Sacred Heart. He went to Carleton College instead, a Division III school in Northfield, Minnesota.

How could a lifelong Griz fan end up 1,223 miles away? Scholarships.

"I didn't really have any offers outside of DIII out of high school,” Williams said. “I did pretty well academically and did pretty well on my standardized tests so I had some good options and Carleton was probably my best academic option and I still got to play football. I love football a lot and that's why I decided to go."

As a freshman Knight, Williams punted 60 times for an average of 36.3 yards per punt. His efforts launched him to second in the MIAC statistics for average punting yardage and inside-the-20 punts.

Williams stayed at Carleton College for only one season before transferring back home.

“I decided that the fit at Carleton wasn’t perfect for me,” Williams said. “I learned a lot and I liked the experience but it just wasn’t the place for me.”

He didn’t play the following fall, electing to coach at Loyola and work on his punting before practice.

Come the spring of 2016, Williams tried out for the Griz squad as a walk-on.

“It was a weird spring, but we battled it out,” Williams said. “I was lucky enough to make the team. I worked really hard for it and here we are.”

Williams found himself in an almost perfect situation.

Following the 2015 season, place-kicker Daniel Sullivan and punter Chris Lider graduated, leaving Montana without options at either of those spots.

Typically walk-ons don’t play major roles right away, let alone start, but when Williams trotted out for his first game against St. Francis, he was the go-to man.

“To come in and try out with no communication with the coaches and go straight into a starting punting job that fall after just playing DIII, it was wild,” Williams said. “It was a big adjustment but it was so much fun."

Williams’ first stat line included four punts for 161 yards, an average of 41 yards per punt.

By the end of the season, he was the seventh-best punter in the league in terms of average yardage.

"I think it's pretty awesome,” special teams coordinator Travis Niekamp said. “Being a hometown boy is pretty neat. Really his whole story is pretty awesome because the kid's worked his tail off to get where he's at. Nothing's been given to him and that's pretty spectacular."

Niekamp’s ready for his star punter’s junior season to start.

“He's gonna be a big deciding difference in our field position battle every Saturday,” Niekamp said. “He's a pretty important part to it because right now, he's our starting punter and our starting kickoff guy and both of those coverage units are huge priorities as far as special teams go in trying to limit field position battles and that's our goal every weekend to give our defense the longest field and to give our offense the shortest field."

With Williams being the starter for a year already, he’s found himself in a leadership role, as several of his fellow specialists are younger.

“It’s the first time that I’ve ever been a lone individual really having to lead a group,” Williams said. “Even in high school we had a great group of seniors but it was all of us. Now it's just me helping these younger guys learn the ropes and they're all gonna have to participate a lot on this team. We're all going to be integral to the success of it.”

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Amie Just covers Griz football for the Missoulian, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

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