On the second defensive snap -- right after the Panthers had allowed a 44-yard pass on Virginia Tech's opening play -- Williams stayed at home on a counter run, read the play and pounced into the hole to stop Hokies running back Michael Holmes for a 2-yard gain.
Williams, a fifth-year senior making his first start, finished with four total tackles.
"We had a tough week of practice, had great preparation," Williams said. "I just was happy to step out there and make an impact with my defense."
The start was a long time coming for Williams, who hadn't played significant minutes since 2009.
After sitting out the '08 season, he played 12 games as a redshirt freshman and finished with eight tackles and one forced fumble.
He missed virtually all of the '10 season with a knee injury and saw action in six games last season, primarily on special teams.
"I always felt like I was a part of the team, even not playing," Williams said.
"I got a little frustrated, but my team is like my family, so they just kept me together."
During this preseason, it looked as if Williams might have had the inside track to start the season opener at weakside linebacker.
By the end of camp, however, redshirt freshman Nicholas Grigsby had worked his way into that spot, and Williams was running with the second team.
Grigsby started Pitt's first two games, but Williams didn't get discouraged.
"I was still just one ankle injury away from going into the game," he said.
Playing at the weakside linebacker, Williams is expected to play a good deal of pass coverage as well as stop the run. Late in the second quarter Saturday, he made a nice play to break up a pass down the right sideline intended for Virginia Tech tight end Randall Dunn.
"We practice both a lot," he said.
"It's just paying attention to detail and handling my assignment."
When asked what his greatest asset on the field is, Williams' response is neither his run-stopping ability nor his pass coverage.
"My heart," he said.
"I feel like my heart is the best part of my game. Just loving the game."
Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable called Williams one of the team's "spiritual leaders."
Huxtable also noted that his communication with middle linebacker Shane Gordon helped Gordon and the defense as a whole have an outstanding game Saturday.
"I really salute Manny Williams being a senior and a guy that, what I understand, hasn't played a lot, but he's never dropped his head," Huxtable said.
"He's never been one of those 'locker lawyers' talking trash and stuff."
Williams is listed as the starter at weakside linebacker for Pitt's game Saturday against Gardner-Webb.
After four years, it has been worth the wait for Williams and the Panthers.
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.