TAMPA, Fla. -- Mike Williams has been called a quitter. He has also been called an off-the-field problem.
Those are tough labels to escape, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie receiver is working hard to do so and earn the reputation he wants most.
"I want to be the steal of the draft," Williams said.
He's off to a good start. Williams has been the star of the Bucs' early training-camp work. He's already running with the first team and, barring a disastrous preseason, Williams will open the regular season as a starting receiver for a team in need of a big-play weapon.
Not bad for a fourth-round pick, one Tampa Bay took two rounds behind another receiver, Arrelious Benn. But Williams is no ordinary fourth-round pick. Were it not for some off-field issues, coupled with being said to have quit the team at Syracuse in 2009, Williams might have been a first-round pick.
Watching him, you can see that. At 6-feet-2 and 215 pounds, he is a big receiver who can also run. And he has great hands. During a practice last Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium, he made a great catch in double-coverage for a touchdown, the type of special play that Bucs fans have been waiting a long time to see from their outside receivers. He plays a different position than Benn, but he has clearly been the better of the two so far, although Benn has come on late.
"You put the ball up there and I will go get it," Williams said. "I call myself a go-getter."
That's a lot better than most of the things he has been called the past year. Problems at Syracuse seemed to follow him around. He was suspended from the team in 2008 for academic issues after being caught cheating on a test. He returned in 2009, but played only five games.
Williams was suspended for a game early in the season, then was off the team for good after a Halloween night car accident when he and some teammates were returning from a casino. The accident happened after curfew, Williams' second curfew violation.
What happened next is perplexing. First-year coach Doug Marrone held a team vote to see if the players wanted Williams to stay on the team. The vote, according to a report, was a big yes.
|Camp Tour: Buccaneers|
While Aqib Talib is on the verge of becoming a special CB, Ronde Barber is trending backward. Read more >>
|Facts & Rumors Blog|
Late-round flier -- Mike Williams, WR: Rookie receivers are considered no-no's in Fantasy, but Williams should see lots of playing time in an offense that doesn't have a reliable wideout. Buccaneers Fantasy outlook >>
|Fantasy Draft Averages|
QB: Josh Freeman (188th Overall)|
RB: Cadillac Williams (60th); Derrick Ward (205th)
WR: Mike Williams (176th); Arrelious Benn (196th)
TE: Kellen Winslow (113th)
Current Draft Averages | 2010 Draft Prep
|2010 Training Camp Tour|
Marrone tried to call Williams, but couldn't get in touch with him. His cell phone was lost in the accident and he wasn't staying at his apartment. Marrone then said Williams quit because he was being suspended for the rest of the season. Williams tried to make his way back, but the separation was for good.
"If you see how I play, you will know I am never going to quit," Williams said. "I didn't quit. That's one thing I want to clear up."
That doesn't mean Williams won't take accountability for his actions. But aside from the curfew breach, the root of most of his troubles was academic issues and not major stuff.
"I wasn't good at school, I can say that," Williams said. "I never missed a class. I just wasn't good at it and I had to deal with the consequences. My bad judgments and my bad grades could have messed up my opportunity here. I thank God for letting me get another chance."
Hey, some kids just go to college to play football, a means to the NFL. Beat them up all you want, but don't tell me Syracuse didn't know this kid had school issues when it recruited him.
If academic troubles and curfew breaches are the worst things that happen to a player, it's hard to label that player as an off-field problem. Yet going into the interview with Williams, I admit there were preconceived ideas that he might be a problem kid.
I left thinking otherwise. Watching him walk away and sign autographs with a big, wide smile on his face, I'm convinced he won't be an NFL problem.
So are the Bucs, who say he has been a model player so far. Staffers say he walks around with a smile on his face and will do anything the team asks.
"We put in a lot of work on Mike," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "You have to give Mike a lot of credit. He was open and honest about everything. He allowed us to get into his personal life. We went back as far as his Pop Warner coaches, his mentors, people who worked at his high school, people who knew him from the cafeterias at Syracuse and Buffalo [his hometown].
"We went as far as we could go, including talking to his college coach, Doug Marrone. Mike would give me a number and we'd check on him. I was worried every time he would break my heart, and he never did. And now he's our starting X receiver. He's come out in training camp and made us look right."
|Mike Williams is impressing the Buccaneers with his ability to catch nearly anything thrown his way. (US Presswire)|
Williams isn't a burner, but he's a long strider who has the power to get deep. Think Larry Fitzgerald.
"Mike Williams cashes in his chances," Bucs corner Aqib Talib said. "He does what Mike Williams does, which is to make plays."
Talib and Williams were matched in a one-on-one on a deep ball during the Bucs' work Saturday. Talib, one of the better young corners in the league, ran stride-for-stride with Williams for 50 yards. When the ball got there, Williams made a nice play to go up and get it, but Talib knocked it away.
It looked like a battle of two future Pro Bowl players.
"Mike's a stud, man," Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman said. "He's made a lot of plays. He's quickly becoming one of our go-to-for-big-play guys. I think he's having fun doing it."
The two have bonded quickly. Freeman, the second-year quarterback who took over as the starter last season as a rookie, spent off time this summer in Tampa throwing to Williams. The rapport is easy to see. They've also become good friends.
"He's a solid guy with a solid work ethic and it's paying off," Freeman said. "Mike's a standup guy, one of my good friends on the team. Labels are labels. One mistake and how the public or the media perceives it and you get a bad rep. From everything I've seen of Mike Williams, he's an awesome guy."
The odyssey to get here has made Williams appreciate where he is, but also want to prove he is a special player.
"It made me believe this game could be taken away from me at any time," Williams said. "This is a privilege, not a right. It's made me a stronger man."
So while much of the preseason attention being given to a rookie receiver has gone to Dez Bryant of the Cowboys, media members and fantasy football players might be wise to look to Williams instead.
"I don't care who got drafted in front of me, who got drafted behind me or right next to me," Williams said. "That doesn't matter. I feel I'm the type of player that I am, I can be the steal of this draft."
He left offering advice for any fantasy players.
"If they want to win, pick me," he said.
After watching him for a couple of practices, I might have to agree. Mike Williams has the tools to be the next big-time receiver in the NFL, and he isn't what you think.