Mike Williams can admit it now. The year of football he missed in 2004 when he unsuccessfully applied for the NFL Draft as a college sophomore took its toll on his pro career.
Williams and former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett originally challenged and won the right to enter the draft that year, but later an appeals court overturned that ruling. When the NCAA would not allow Williams to play again for Southern California, he was left in no man’s land for a year until he was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 2005.
“I think what I lost the most wasn’t anything football related; it was the structure,” said Williams, now 24 and trying to resurrect his career with the Tennessee Titans. “Being a part of a routine and having a regimen and having a set schedule of being here for how long and being there for how long. That was my main thing that I struggled with for awhile. I struggled with it.
“I got better about it at the end of my first year, but the second year I got right back into [being late]. It was the structure. That was the main thing that hurt me, just the structure and waking up and commitment. What do they call it? Being a pro. Having a year off from that, that was the main thing that hurt me.”
During his time with the Lions, who picked him 10th overall in the 2005 draft, Williams was said to be frequently fined for being late for meetings and other such transgressions. The Lions were all too happy to trade him to Oakland as part of a package during draft weekend last year.
When he got to the Raiders, he didn’t last long there either and was released after dropping a key fourth-down pass against the Titans in October. Williams signed a two-year deal with the Titans on Thanksgiving Day, but did not catch a pass in two games. He was deactivated for the final weeks of the season, even though Tennessee was shorthanded at receiver due to injuries.
At season’s end, Williams, who weighed more than 270 pounds when signed in November, was told matter-of-factly by Coach Jeff Fisher to get in shape or get released again.
That edict and the hiring of hard-line offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger would have seemed to all but deal the death blow to Williams as a Titan or maybe even as an NFL player.
But a funny thing happened in the nine weeks or so between Tennessee’s playoff loss to San Diego and the opening of the off-season program in late March. Williams dedicated himself to making the most of his opportunity, and if Friday’s OTA work is any indication, might make a strong case to play himself into the Titans’ plans this season.
He said he has lost more than 30 pounds and hopes to show the “experts” who said the Titans needed to spend an early pick on a receiver, that that is not necessarily the case.
“That’s the only thing I could control,” he said of his conditioning. “I couldn’t control the draft. I didn’t know if they would take a receiver at No. 1. I just had to control what I could control and that was me coming back in shape and that would let them know that, ‘Hey, we might not have to draft one [early].’ I’m not saying that the way I came back made their decision not to draft one, and I’m not saying it did. But it didn’t matter if they drafted one or not, I’m going to compete regardless.”
When it came time to report for off-season work, Williams and was the first player to arrive in the locker room on the first day. As fate would have it, his path crossed with Heimerdinger, and the two have seemingly struck up a good relationship thus far.
“I was here the first day we started [the off-season work],” Williams said. “I was in the locker room by myself. I was so excited to show everybody what I looked like that I was here early. That’s the last time I’ve been here that early. I was in here at a quarter to seven just sitting around watching TV. He was the first guy I saw. He was passing through and came over and introduced himself, and we just went from there. I’ve got a respect level, not even knowing him, but just having friends that played for him. You find out for yourself the fire that he has, and the expectations.”
Williams seemingly has taken to the words Heimerdinger told all the Titans receivers that day to heart.
“I don’t have a preconceived notion of who should be there and who shouldn’t,” Heimerdinger said. “It’s a matter of them showing what they can do, and that’s what I told them the first day that you guys have a good opportunity here because I have no preconceived notion of who can do what or do anything. You’ve got to show me, and if you can make plays out here, then you’ve got a chance to play.”
Heimerdinger said Williams is plenty talented to play. It’s simply a matter of him being in good enough shape to contribute.
“He’s an amazing talent. For a big man to run like he runs,” Heimerdinger said. “He’s got great hands and he’s run real good. The problem with Mike is he’s got to be able to do it more than two days in a row. He’s got to get in shape and make sure that he’s here. Talent-wise, he’s very talented and can do a lot of good things.
“With a talent like that, I think any offense can use it, but he has to be in shape and he has to be able to run more than two outs in a row. I’ve never been a guy that rotates a lot of wide receivers.”
Williams still isn’t exactly where he wants to be weight-wise _ he says he’s around 242, but he’s closing in on his goal.
“I want to see if I can get to my S.C. weight of 235 or 230,” Williams said.
Williams also is beginning to get a bit of his swagger back, as well. He knows that because of his past issues with the Lions and Raiders and his high draft status, this could be his last shot to find success. But he doesn’t dwell on it.
“You think about it, but it’s not something I wake up thinking about,” he said. “There’s enough pressure being in this league and being drafted in the top 10 and being on your third team. That’s enough pressure in itself. [There’s no need] to add more to it. I just come here to work and take care of the things I can take care of. People are going to say what they want.”
Titans backup quarterback Kerry Collins sees a big improvement thus far from the guy who didn’t catch a single pass for Tennessee last year.
“It’s not a question of talent. He’s big guy, he’s got big strong hands. He’s got all the tools,” Collins said. “It’s just keep getting familiar with what we’re doing and keep going in the direction he’s going with his weight, and I think he can be a big part of what we do.”
Heimerdinger, never one to lavish loads of praise for no reason, sees that as well.
“Right now he does some things that when you watch him, he’s very talented,” Heimerdinger said. “He’s got great hands and can run very well for a big man. It’s is he in shape and can he do it consistently?”
Only Williams can answer that.