Sept. 27, 2012
By Phil Chardis
Assistant Director-Athletic Communications
If Nick Williams had a dollar for every time he was told why he couldn’t play football, he wouldn’t have to worry about post-graduation employment.
Not tall enough, not strong enough, not fast enough, can’t jump high enough, plus a thousand other reasons … the 5-10, 184-pound Williams has heard them all - over and over again - since he first put on a helmet and shoulder pads.
“Yeah, I’ve heard the whole nine, and pretty often,” said the University of Connecticut senior receiver/kick returner. “I’ve always kind of had to have a chip on my shoulder based on my height and the position that I play.”
So, Williams listened to all the reasons why he should concentrate on a sport more suited to his body and then did what any hard-nosed competitor would do - he ignored them. Instead, he focused on the things he could do well on the football field. In high school, that meant playing cornerback and safety on defense, and running back and receiver on offense.
“Depending on who we were playing, I’d play a different position,” said Williams, an East Windsor, N.J., native who graduated from The Hun School (Princeton, N.J.).
Even after he arrived at UConn, it took some time to narrow down a regular position for Williams.
“Coming out of high school, when I was choosing schools, this school wanted me to play safety, this one wanted me as a running back, so I never really had to cement a position,” Williams, an economics major, explained. “Even when I came here, my first couple of years I was switching back and forth between running back and receiver.”
No matter what the level, however, there was one position Williams was certain to play. When a kickoff or a punt was in the air, he was going to be downfield waiting for it.
“I’ve always been doing returns,” Williams said. “That’s been the one cemented position for me.”
And why not? When it comes to returning kicks, size and strength are nothing compared to elusiveness and Williams has proven to be as elusive as they come. He is the all-time UConn leader in kickoff return yardage at 28.3 yards per return and stands fifth in UConn history in punt return yardage at 9.3. He is one of only five Huskies in history to have scored a touchdown on both a kickoff return (he has two) and a punt return.
The punt return TD was a 58-yard beauty for the first points of the game at Maryland that helped propel the Huskies to a 24-21 victory.
“At first, I was trying to decide whether I was going to field it or not, because it was a short kick, but it bounced right in my lap, so I decided to field it,” Williams said. “Those plays happen fast, a lot of quick decisions. I just figured I’d try to press it vertically and if I could make it out to the sideline, I’ll make the cut and it opened up that way. I made it out to the sideline, picked up a nice couple of blocks, a couple of trailers, and just started running as hard as I could to get to the end zone.”
There was only one Maryland player bearing down on Williams with a late chance to knock him out of bounds --- ironically, Williams saw it was No. 89, his high school teammate Matt Furstenburg.
“Matt’s a good friend and he’s a really fast tight end and a pretty good player, so I saw him and I said to myself, ‘Uh-oh, it’s Matt,’ ” Williams grinned. “We were talking trash to each other during the week. He was saying, ‘I hope you don’t fair catch the ball, so I can get my tackling stats up.’ And I was saying, ‘I want to get my return numbers up.’ So it was pretty funny. I don’t know that he’s in the laughing stage about it yet, but in a couple of days, I’ll give him a call.”
Williams finished the game with 60 yards on two punt returns, 52 yards on two kickoff returns, and was named the BIG EAST Conference Special Teams Player of the Week. After four games, Williams is second in the BIG EAST and tied for 12th in the country in punt return average (17.67) and is third in the league in kickoff return average (24.44).
“I think you have to have the feeling that you can break one any time you field a punt or a kickoff,” Williams said. “It gets me in trouble now and then, taking too many chances, or making the risky decision instead of the safe one, but every time in my mind, I’m thinking ‘score.’ It doesn’t always happen, but that’s the mindset. Player of the Week is nice, but if you ever see a returner making a big play, it’s because there are 10 other players out there blocking.”
Williams, however, has become much more than just a kick returner for the Huskies. He has rushed for 20 yards and added another 101 receiving yards to lead the team with 500 all-purpose yards (125.0 per game).
“When I got here, I thought I was going to be a corner, but then they put me at running back,” said Williams, who is a team captain. “When you look at it, I think the best place for me to help the team the most is in the slot. I think the coaches have realized that and I realize that, so that’s the decision that was made, for me to play that position on offense.”
Which has brought about the comparisons to the Patriots’ undsersized, but highly-effective slot receiver Wes Welker.
“I’m flattered by the comparison, and he’s a hero of mine and I look up to him, but I think it’s kind of a stretch,” Williams said. “He’s got hundreds of catches in the NFL and he’s probably got more catches over 40 yards for touchdowns than I have catches. But it’s something I can dream about.”
His dream of college football success, however, has become a reality - even though he’s not big enough, strong enough, fast enough, and can’t jump high enough.
“I’m a way better football player now than when I came to UConn,” Williams said. “I’m better physically, of course, but a lot better mentally. If you take a player with a senior’s mind and even in a freshman’s body, you’ll have a much better player. Experience is the most underrated aspect of a player’s game. Being in situations multiple times, it just makes you more comfortable on the field, just smarter and that’s undervalued too. People like to put hype on athleticism, speed, size, strength, but a lot of guys out there who are successful, they are just the smarter players.”
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