BY JOHN SILVER
STORRS, Conn. – You should forgive coaches, pundits and fans that overlook Nick Williams.
Looking at the University of Connecticut’s 5-foot-9 wide receiver it’s hard to fathom that he can be anything more than a bit player on an FBS team. Williams wouldn’t standout in a lineup during a high school football game on Friday night, much less a football field with NFL caliber talent and size. He isn’t a prototype, doesn’t have blazing speed or strength when compared to his peers. By the looks of it, it’s understandable how he gets passed over when the top playmakers in the Big East are discussed.
It’s understandable when you consider his looks. Looks can be deceiving however and once a coaching staff sees what Williams can do on the football field, leaving him out of the offense is not understandable.
Williams has been unheralded his entire career since coming in as a kick return for East Windsor, N.J. After two years of being one of the more dynamic kick off returners in college football, head coach Paul Pasqualoni has seen the light and incorporated the shifty Williams into the offense.
UConn hosts North Carolina State on Saturday at noon at Rentschler Field and if the Huskies are going to move to 2-0, they are going to need a healthy dose of Williams.
Williams does something that few players can do -- make something out of nothing.
The senior captain is the most dynamic player on the Huskies’ roster and in the opener against UMass last week racked up 143 all-purpose yards in almost every way imaginable; on kickoff returns, punt returns, receptions and even some rushes. The motive is clear -- the Huskies want the ball in Williams’ hand.
“I think what you try to do as a coach, is you try to identify your talent and skill set of the players you have,” Pasqualoni said. “Then the fun and the trick of being the coach, is trying to utilize all of the talent that you have in the room. Nick is a talent. We’re trying to put him in situations where he can go one-on-one, especially in the underneath and short game. We’re just trying to come up with ways for Nick to get some touches and be productive.”
Last Thursday against UMass was the perfect game plan for Williams. He touched the ball eight times with one catch for 16 yards, three rushes for 24 yards, three punt returns for 66 yards and then a kickoff return of 37 yards for good measure.
Getting Williams involved that much in the offense is something he’s been looking forward to a long time.
““I think this year I’m a little more involved than I have been in years past,” Williams said. “I’m all for that. I hope that continues and the role continues to grow as well.”
What makes Williams such a dynamic player is his uncanny ability to change direction at full speed. The ultimate showcase for that skill is as a kick returner where he is able to wave through the coverage units for 30 yards at a clip. He has the ability to make people miss and turn tacklers around without losing speed. That’s a talent that can’t be coached or developed – you either have it or you don’t.
Williams has it in spades.
“No blocking? He can still get something,” special teams coordinator Clayton
White said. “No one is coaching that, he has that talent. If you have to coach a returner you probably got the wrong guy back there. He has a knack with the ball in his hands. It makes every ones job easier.”
The impact of that kick returning ability isn’t lost on the coaching staff. Williams averaged 22 yards per punt return against UMass and on his one kickoff return went 37 yards and almost broke it for a touchdown. Those are field position and sometimes game-changing plays out of the special teams units. After the initial blocks, most of it is Williams’ doing.
It was only a matter of time before that dynamic open field ability was going to be featured on offense. Last year Williams showed a glimpse of what he was capable of with a two touchdown game against Buffalo where he broke free for two long touchdown catches. The Huskies won 17-3 largely on Williams’ two catches.
That was the highlight on offense last year for Williams as he finished with 11 catches for 236 yards. It was a peculiar lack of use considering UConn’s struggles on offense. That was rectified in the offseason when Pasqualoni and offensive coordinator George DeLeone scripted plays specifically for Williams’ skill set. One such play is a sweep in the Wildcat formation that was effective in three carries against UMass.
Williams is all for that.
“I’ve got a pretty big chip on my shoulder, so any time I can make plays, it satisfies the chip,” Williams said. “Just over the years, I’ve been overlooked and what not, from outside in and inside out. It feels good to go out there and perform a little bit.”
Williams has pushed his way into the slot receiver for the Huskies by turning himself into a competent wide receiver and route runner. Williams was a running back by trade, but has learned the craft. With his size and ability to work underneath brings comparisons to Patriots great Wes Welker, who is the patron saint of players under 6-0.
Williams isn’t quite that kind of receiver and route runner just yet, but in the college game he can have the same impact over the middle and in the slot. The more dangerous Williams becomes, the more chances UConn will have downfield with quarterback Chandler Whitmer in the passing game.
The Huskies are searching for any and all playmakers on an offensive unit that has had a dearth of explosive players. Williams is a natural choice for the offense considering what he can do on kick returns. Williams doesn’t need to be the featured receiver or the focal point of the offense, he just needs to get touches.
The more touches Williams gets the better the result will be for the Huskies.