Damian Williams has joined a deep receiving corps and made it to the top before. It’s something he wants to repeat with the Tennessee Titans.
In 2007 Williams transferred from Arkansas, where he was the team’s second-leading receiver as a true freshman, to talent-laden USC. Despite the obvious obstacles involved in joining a highly recruited receiving corp., Williams wasn’t lacking in swagger or drive to improve his position.
“I knew that I would be OK just going out there and competing,” Williams, a third-round draft pick in April, recalled recently. “I wanted to go to a school where I felt that fundamentally, and as a receiver, I would develop into a NFL-caliber player. I knew that they had a history of putting guys in the NFL, especially at my position, so I wanted to go out there and compete and see what I could do.”
He left Arkansas with quarterback Mitch Mustain. Their decisions were influenced when Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who coached the two at Springdale High School in Arkansas, left for a position at Tulsa. Mustain was one of the most celebrated high school prospects Arkansas history, and was named prep player of the year by Parade Magazine.
The results of the transfer varied drastically for the two long-time teammates.
A testament to his studious approach while he sat out the 2007 season off due to transfer rules, Williams led the Trojans in receiving the next two seasons. In 2008 he had 58 receptions for 869 yards and nine touchdowns. In 2009 he caught 70 balls for 1,010 yards and six touchdowns.
Mustain, on the other hand, remained near the bottom of the depth chart and off the field.
“I think it’s a little different at Mitch’s position,” Williams said. “There’s only one quarterback on the field and we had JB [John David Booty], we had Mark Sanchez, and then Matt Barkley came in and he’s really good. I think that our situations were different.”
His physical talents made Williams a desirable recruit and transfer, but he credits his football IQ for his quick success in USC’s offense. Williams studied the USC playbook tirelessly upon arrival in order to be ready when he was eligible to play again.
“When I went out there the first thing I wanted to do was just learn the offense,” Williams said. “I didn’t just want to know what I was doing but every position: what the quarterback reads, what the running back blocks, what the line was doing, everything. I took that year to get to know everything so that I could kind of be like a coach out there.
“Fortunately for me, the year I sat out I got to be on the scout team so I was going against the first-team corners and safeties every day.”
Williams figures he can only benefit from repeating his history of memorizing playbooks and outshining competing wideouts in practice. He also admits, though, that he still has plenty to learn about the professional game.
“I’ve learned a whole lot about the offense and I’m just trying to make strides to get on the field,” he said. “It’s football. You come in and the playbook is this big and you try to shrink it. You try to make things as simple as possible for yourself.”
One area Williams is expected to have an immediate impact is in the return game.
The Titans have struggled to find a consistent performer at that spot since the suspension in 2007 and departure in 2008 of Pacman Jones.
Tennessee was 25th in the league in punt return average (6.7 yards per return) and 29th in kickoff return average (20.5 yards per return) last season. They had zero returns result in a touchdown. Last fall at USC, Williams returned two punts for touchdowns and averaged 13.6 yards per return.
His long-term goal is to be relevant in the NFL as a wide receiver, but he is aware he was brought in to help the return game immediately.
“I know that was one of my purposes for being brought in,” Williams said. ”My first position is at receiver and so I definitely want to be a threat there but if they need me in the special teams game I’m ready to step up and do that.”
From there, he’ll try to move up the depth chart.