Big Job For UConn Coaches? Get Nick Williams The Ball

STORRS

— It was during a special teams meeting last September that George DeLeone emphasized a point many UConn football fans already had made since the days of Randy Edsall.

"I remember it distinctly," the UConn offensive coordinator said. "We're watching Nick Williams run back kickoffs, run back punts. I'm sitting next to [wide receivers coach] Matt Cersosimo. I tapped him and said, 'This guy has got to do more for us on offense.'"

The next week, Williams caught two passes at Buffalo. One went for 64 yards. The other went for 49 yards and the first touchdown catch of his college career.

It would be a nice, tidy story if from there Williams made 40 more catches in 2011.

And it would be a fairy tale if we could tell you that Williams grew 3 inches and put on 30 pounds since his junior year.

Neither happened. As explosive as Nick Williams' game is, the evolution toward Wes Welker is a gradual one. Befitting his size, big goals come in small steps.

"[Welker] is like a hero of mine, I love everything he does," Williams said. "I think the comparisons are a little lofty. He has got [650] catches in the NFL. I've got like 15 in college. But guys like him I love to model my game after. Little, short guys, underdogs, I'm rooting for."

Being an All-Big East kick returner and leading the nation in kickoff return average as a sophomore is one matter. Being All-Purpose and a senior captain helping lead a team to aspirations higher than last year's 5-7 disappointment is quite another. Yet if intent can be captured in a dozen words, here is Nick Williams' all-purpose purpose: "Anywhere, anyway I can help the team win, I'm all for it."

Games against North Carolina State on Saturday and Maryland on Sept. 15 obviously will be a better measuring stick, yet Williams did demonstrate in a 37-0 opening rout of UMass how many ways he can hurt an opponent.

He had nearly 80 all-purpose yards in the first 12 minutes and, as UConn exposed a little of everything in its playbook, he finished with 143 on eight touches. He had a catch for 16 yards. On a play previously run for Kashif Moore, he had gains of 14 and nine off inside handoffs in the wildcat. He had a 34-yard punt return. He had one kickoff return for 37.

"I am not equating Nick to Marvin Harrison," said DeLeone, who coached the Colts' great at Syracuse. "I am saying when Marvin was a junior, he averaged 18 yards a touch, punt return, receiver, kickoff. We said we're dumb if we don't get that kid the ball."

All-purpose yardage can be an unpredictable stat. You can kick away from a returner, etc.

"We tried with Marvin to get a number, not yards, of at least eight touches a game," DeLeone said. "You multiply that by 18 yards, that's serious production. We've got to get Nick more touches. We've got to find ways to get him the ball. That's on us. Some weeks are easier than others."

Williams said he has resented being known in the past as only a returner. A football Napoleon complex also has fueled him to work harder. At 5-10, 185 pounds, he chuckles when asked how much bigger he is than when he arrived at Storrs in 2009.

"Five pounds and no taller, unfortunately," said Williams, from East Windsor, N.J. "I've got a pretty big chip on my shoulder. Any time I can make plays, it satisfies the chip a little bit. All through high school, all through recruiting, even when I came here — not quite fast enough, not quite tall enough, always not quite. I've always used it as motivation."

Nicky Will. Nicky Welker. Napoleon Dynamite. Not Quite. There is no shortage of potential nicknames for a player UConn fans love to touch the ball.

"It's also easy for a fan to say, well, you're in a dropback pass game, just throw him the ball," DeLeone said. "The read, the opponent's strength, doesn't always take it to him in our system. With that said, we've got to make sure he is high on our priorities."

"He never last year was the offensive threat he should have been. I think it was a struggle for him initially to learn the offense and have confidence in the assignments."

This year, DeLeone said, Williams, as a receiver, is a "changed kid."

"He was on a mission all summer to become the best receiver he could, to be so confident in his assignments he can play fast. Mentally, he hasn't had problem No. 1. Last year, I wasn't sure where he'd be on any given route. He has made the ultimate commitment as a player to get better."

Coming out of high school, Williams drew no interest from nearby Rutgers. He is a good student, an economics major who was named to the All-Big East academic team last year. Army and Navy were interested. So was the Ivy League. The last visit he made before UConn was to Penn. Some schools wanted him as a receiver, others as a running back, others as a corner or safety. No major conference school offered him a scholarship, save UConn. So when he broke a kickoff for 100 yards at Rutgers in 2010, you don't think that was sweet?

"What Nick does for field position on special teams is tremendously underrated," DeLeone said. "Last year in two or three games we won, his returns were critical."

"Part of the trick being a coach is utilizing all the talent you have in the room," coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "Nick is a talent. I think we all agree. We're trying to put him in situations where he can go 1-on-1, especially in the underneath and short [passing] game."

Although Williams says it has made him a "better and stronger person in the long run," it was a mistake for Edsall not to redshirt Williams as a freshman. Could you imagine if he had another year left? Then again, maybe the long, slow evolution of the quickest, most elusive guy on the field was somehow meant to be.

"It wasn't one conversation that changed things," Williams said. "It's more seeing your role developing during practice. I saw an opportunity to strike over the summer and enhance that role by working on my routes."

Williams runs like he grew up dodging rush-hour traffic on the Jersey Turnpike. Changing directions, stops, bursts, it's a rush every time he touches the ball. Making a charging opponent miss while you're fielding a punt, finding a hole off a wildcat handoff, a kickoff return sprint, Williams says there are different skills at work.

"Still, when the ball gets into your hands, from that point, it's all second nature," Williams said. "The process of getting it to your hands is what takes the real effort. Kickoff, punt, wildcat and passing game plans, it's more than I was used to in the past. It's not too much to handle."

"In any 1-on-1 situation, I pride myself in not being brought down. I do think I've gotten more explosive, quicker, loosened up. But experience is the most underrated thing. You can take the same athlete freshman year and put him in a senior's mind and he's a different player."

Experience and smarts, they can't be quantified with a tape measure and scale.

CHICAGO