When he switched from safety to running back at Florida State, Karlos Williams was drawn to one running back in particular. The goggles. The neck collar. The “awkward” running style and “weird” look.
In Eric Dickerson, there was a lot to like.
“I’m a weird running back,” Williams said. “I’m very long and lanky. I like the way he ran the football. When he hit the open field, he was gone. He’s a home-run hitter and I feel like I can be a home-run hitter.”
Williams views Dickerson as one of the 10 best backs of all-time. So, hey, maybe it’s worth rocking some eyewear himself.
“I wear contacts, so I might have to bust out the goggles and get a prescription shield,” Williams said. “That’d be funny if I did wear goggles.”
No, the Buffalo Bills aren’t expecting this fifth-round pick to be an instant Hall of Famer. The offense will run, first, through LeSean McCoy. There’s still mileage left in the 34-year-old Fred Jackson. There’s the round Boobie Dixon, the unpredictable Bryce Brown and even multiple fullbacks. But there’s a reason head coach Rex Ryan still drafted a running back – this 6-foot-1, 230-pounder could bring a different element.
Built like Dickerson, he also runs with the “Ground and Pound” attitude Ryan covets. Williams was initially the No. 2 safety prospect in the nation and played defense at Florida State.
He then brought that temperament to running back.
“I was an aggressive safety,” Williams said. “I loved being in the box to hit. And then I used that same kind of running style when I had the football because I know how it feels to lay big hits and that’s what defense is all about. Especially when you play for Coach Ryan, who loves hitters, who loves aggressive guys.”
Buffalo was drawn to Williams’ rare blend of size and speed. Carrying 30-plus more pounds than his peers, he finished second at running back in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine (4.48 seconds). And in two seasons, he averaged 5.9 yards per carry with 22 touchdowns.
He’s still green at the position. Williams has a very distinct, one-cut-and-go style.
Dance? Williams jokes he’s “too big” to dance, relying on a no-nonsense “see the hole, hit the hole” mentality.
“I make very quick decisions,” Williams said. “It may not be the best decision, the best read or the best cut but I don’t like to waste time getting to the line of scrimmage. … I played defense. I know how it feels to hit somebody very, very hard. The people who think too much running the football are the ones who get teed off on.”
If Williams is going to make it in the NFL, he’ll need to lower his pad level. He has that Dickerson-like lankiness, after all. When Williams re-watched college film this offseason, he realized just how upright he ran and admits he’s lucky he didn’t get drilled himself. So all spring, all summer, he’s been consciously staying low through drills, be it firing through a chute or cutting around pads.
To him, it’s a matter of repetition. Eventually, he hopes to naturally adopt a low center of gravity.
“Make it like muscle memory,” Williams said. “So when I get the ball and I’m in the hole, my pads are already low and I’m not going to have to think about it.”
Because when he does unload his weight into tacklers – and Williams played at 235 sometimes in college – the results can be devastating. Florida State safety Terrence Brooks never collided with Williams at practice. He’s glad. As Brooks said, Florida State’s talent-laden defense loved to hit in practice but “I don’t know if we want to hit that guy every time.”
While Brooks says Williams may do a lot of talking, such confidence helps fuel his game. The current Baltimore Ravens safety calls him a “freak of nature.”
“To see a guy that size who can move that fast and make the moves that he does, it’s a rare thing,” Brooks said. “He’ll be a back you can definitely use for your power downs when you need to get those few good yards. But you can’t just limit him to that, because he’s capable of breaking through that line and using that breakaway speed to get through the secondary.”
The origins of Williams’ competitiveness can be found in the kitchen and the backyard with his two brothers. Growing up, Williams use to race his older brother Vince – now a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers – to the refrigerator for the last drop of milk to put in his cereal. Outside, they sparred one on one in every possible spot.
On the basketball court, Karlos relied on athleticism and his three-pointer. Vince muscled his way into the paint.
“Who could eat the most? Who could drink the most?” Williams said. “We always had a competitive drive and I think that’s what helped us get to where we are today.”
Of course, the Bills took a risk here. Williams was in the news for all the wrong reasons last October when a pregnant ex-girlfriend accused him of domestic assault. She later told police she didn’t want to press charges and the case was dropped. After the pick, the Bills insisted they vetted Williams. He has declined comment on the subject, repeating that he’s moving on.
So now, in this loaded backfield, Williams tries to stand out. That won’t be easy. He’s surrounded by much more seasoned backs. First, Williams hopes to find a role on special teams – something he did all four years in college.
“As far as getting carries in the backfield, I have to go earn them,” Williams said. “It’s not going to be given to me. I know I have a backfield full of good backs who have proven themselves to be good backs in the NFL. I’m going to have to go in there and earn carries.
“I think I bring a different element being as big and as fast as I am. It creates mismatches for safeties and outside linebackers. Very instinctive. I make very, very good reads. Very fast reads. I try to hit the line of scrimmage as fast as possible. We know we’re a power team. We’re a downhill team. So it’s just something I have to be prepared for.”
He does remember Ryan’s ground-and-pound offenses in New York. In Ryan’s dream scenario, the Bills ram the ball downfield the old fashioned way all the way to the postseason. So while it appeared Buffalo didn’t need a running back, maybe it did need Williams.
Williams and Ryan have talked plenty – the 22-year-old says their personalities mesh. In this risky pick, Buffalo sees major potential rewards, sees a bruiser who can also separate.
If he wears goggles, Williams isn’t sure if he’ll single-handedly make them popular again.
At least right away.
“I don’t know if I’m there yet,” Williams said. “But it’d be something to talk about.”