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After two stellar years as a starting cornerback for Penn football, Mason Williams has announced plans to transfer, forcing the Red and Blue to find their next man up quickly as the 2017 season approaches.

Credit: Griff Fitzsimmons

Penn football still has its eyes on the coveted Ivy League three-peat, but the road to making history just got a bit tougher.

On Saturday evening, the Red and Blue program received a bombshell when rising junior and defending first team All-Ivy cornerback Mason Williams announced that he’d be transferring from Penn to Duke for the upcoming school year and joining the football program there. Williams, who led the Ancient Eight with six interceptions in a breakout sophomore season, wrote the following statements on his Twitter account:

Williams declined to elaborate beyond those Tweets regarding the primary reasons for his decision, calling it a “delicate situation” and merely saying that “I’m sad to leave the University of Pennsylvania, but excited and looking forward to the next chapter in my life.”

However, he did say that head coach Ray Priore had prior knowledge of his situation, thanking Priore for “battling through this” alongside him throughout the spring. When asked for comment, Priore gave the following statement:

“Due to personal and family reasons, Mason Williams has decided to step away from the University of Pennsylvania. As a program, we wish Mason nothing but the best wherever his next step may take him. He gave two outstanding years to Penn football and did everything we asked of him on and off the field. I know this was tremendously tough for him, but Penn football is about family first and we respect and appreciate the difficulty Mason and his family went through in making this decision.”

As Priore’s Quakers have embarked on their unprecedented rise from a sixth-place finish in Al Bagnoli’s final season in 2014 to their back-to-back titles in the most recent two seasons, Williams has been one of the most prominent faces of the team’s rapid resurgence.

Earning a starting job immediately as a freshman in 2015, Williams was part of a trio of true freshmen in the secondary that took the Ivy League by storm, joining classmates Sam Philippi and Jyron Walker in the defensive backfield. And by just about any metric, Williams and his classmates made a drastic impact as soon as they stepped on campus.

As a team, Penn saw its defense drop to allowing 26.8 points per game after allowing 31.9 the year prior, with the Quakers impressively rising from 106th nationally in turnover margin in 2014 to eighth in Williams’ freshman year. Individually, Williams was all over the field, securing 43 tackles with four pass breakups and asserting himself as a young star to watch.

“Teams have had years where they struggle, and the year before Jyron, Sam, and I came happened to be one of those years. I will always remember playing with those two, Jyron especially because he was my roommate,” Williams said. “Both guys are incredible athletes. Sam Philippi is the leader and has always been the leader of the Penn defense out on that field. Our top memory as a group has got to be [a 48-28 win at] Brown our freshman year. We led the team in tackles that game [combining for 15 of the team’s 49]. Sam had a couple INT’s and Jyron played like a man possessed. These past two seasons have been successful due to the brilliant coaching staff behind Ray Priore and defensive coordinator Bob Benson, and this next season will be nothing short of a success for this program.”

But even after that stellar rookie season, the Los Angeles native would break out even further in his second year in University City. Combining his consistent physicality in the run game with a ball-hawking mentality that thrived in Benson’s blitz-happy defense, Williams became arguably the Ivy League’s best cornerback as a sophomore.

Perhaps his best individual performance came when the lights were literally and figuratively the brightest, as he hauled in two interceptions in a “Friday Night Lights” 27-14 upset of then-undefeated Harvard in what was a must-win for Penn to stay alive in the Ivy title race.

But that phenomenal performance under the Franklin Field lights was only a microcosm of what was a fantastic season overall — besides his league-leading six interceptions, Williams’ 46 tackles also ranked fifth on the team, as he ended up being named a HERO Sports First Team Sophomore All-American in addition to his aforementioned All-Ivy honors.

“Last year was a great year for myself. Most of my success came from the guys around me!” Williams said. “Starting with coach Benson, he is a great defensive coordinator and put me in positions to make plays. Other players like [linebacker] Nick Miller and [defensive end] Louis Vecchio made it easy for a player like me to play fast and hard. The Penn offense was so powerful and scored at will. That allowed my game as well as other defensive players to play more comfortably and at ease. When you know you can score like that, you feel like you can’t lose.”

Needless to say, the impact Williams has made for Benson’s defense has been undeniable. But while the team will sorely miss its star corner this fall, it’ll be a “next man up” mentality as the competition to fill that spot ensues.

And who might that “next man” be? With Walker returning after two years starting opposite Williams, he figures to be have a very good chance at retaining his corner spot. As for the other spot, rising sophomore Conor O’Brien may be in line for a major promotion — O’Brien actually entered for Walker after the latter was benched after allowing a deep touchdown in the team’s title-clinching win over Cornell, suggesting that Benson and his staff have some major confidence in the second-year player going forward. Beyond them, Eric Markes, Hassan Smith and converted running back Niko France all saw thorough playing time during spring ball.

So despite the understandable disappointment at the shocking announcement, not all is lost for Priore’s squad. Even without Williams, the team’s 10 returning All-Ivy selections are still three more than any other Ivy League team has — and in the secondary specifically, Walker, Philippi and O’Brien will ensure that Benson’s defensive backfield will still have some major talent.

“The Penn football team will be fine,” Williams said. “Coach Benson knows what he is doing. You will see the best secondary out on that field. He knows how to win football games.”

As for Williams’ next chapter, the rising junior will join one of the nation’s rapidly improving programs in Durham. Having long been a laughing stock within the powerful ACC — finishing winless in three separate seasons throughout the 2000s — ninth-year coach David Cutliffe has transformed the program in a manner somewhat similar to Priore’s own renaissance at Penn.

After not having made a bowl game since 1994, the Blue Devils reached the postseason in four consecutive seasons from 2012 to 2015, topping Indiana in the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl for the school’s first bowl win since 1960. Though Duke did struggle to a 4-8 mark in the most recent season, it’s no secret that Williams is joining a squad on the rise.

“I’m very excited to be a part of this group,” Williams said. “The coaches and players have welcomed me with open arms. I’m ready to begin my career here.”

But no matter where Duke goes from here or whether Williams can fight for serious minutes, one thing is abundantly clear. Though his time suiting up on the field with his Red and Blue brothers has come to an abrupt end, the brotherhood with his fellow Quakers off the gridiron will remain as strong as ever.

“I love all those guys at Penn. I wish nothing but the best for them. I hope that my relationships with the coaches and teammates at Penn will last, as well as my relationships with the faculty, staff, students, alums, and whole Penn community. I thank them all so much for making my stay at Penn very special,” he said. “I do not want them to mourn over this. I want them to get another ring. Three straight.”