(Note: Leading up to the NFL Draft, we'll have features on a prospect at each position. Today, we begin with the wide receivers.)
Forget the NFL Draft. In 2012, Wendall Williams was nowhere near a football field. He was driving a truck on I-81.
The Syracuse native had dropped out of Morrisville State and Onondaga Community College. Immature, careless, a self-described "knucklehead," this blur of an athlete was now steering a 20-foot box truck 130 miles north to Ogdensburg and back. He'd the hit road around 4:30 a.m., would finish at 4 p.m., eat, sleep, repeat.
So the NFL? Please.
“I’m making good money,” Williams said, “and not even worried about it.”
Nowadays, he’s challenging Chris Johnson to a race. That’s right. Hand-timed at a blistering 4.19 seconds in the 40-yard dash at a regional combine, this wide receiver wants a piece of "CJ2K," whose 4.24 is a NFL Combine record.
“Hey, I’m a humble guy,” Williams assures, “but I’d love to race him. That’s all I’m going to say. I won’t say ‘I’m going to win’ or ‘He’s going to win.’ But I would for sure love to race him.”
So how does a college dropout, a kid driving trucks become the fastest prospect in the NFL Draft? He woke up. Who is Wendall Williams? One of this draft’s great mysteries.
One conversation inspired Williams to enroll at Herkimer Community College, get good grades, transfer to the University of the Cumberlands, and star in both track and football. On the field, his numbers are Madden-esque. He averaged 30.5 yards per catch (15-457) with eight touchdowns, 32.4 yards per kick return (24-777) with three scores, 23.5 yards per punt return (6-141) with a score and another 29.1 yards per carry (7-205) with three touchdowns.
Video-game numbers from a receiver with video-game speed, athleticism.
At the regional combine in Minnesota, Williams had a 45-inch vertical leap in addition to the 4.19. Both would’ve been records at the Combine. He promptly received 150-plus texts.
“I perform at my best when there’s competition,” he said, “and being in that surrounding with NFL scouts and other players trying to get to the same spot I’m in, it pushed me.”
The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder is asked constantly where his speed comes from.
He points to nature — his mother was a tomboy and his father played semipro football. He points to nurture — his four older brothers chased him nonstop as a kid. Williams admits he was annoying, and sort of deserved it, but he was always running… and running... and running to avoid being pummeled.
And, of course, he points to track. As Williams says, “speed is a necessity to me.”
He won the NAIA national title in the long jump and placed fourth in the country in both the 100 and 200. If speed was the end all, be all, Usain Bolt would’ve already smashed Jerry Rice’s records, so Williams quickly makes a distinction.
“I play football, man,” he said. “There’s some guys out there who are really fast but they don’t play football. I’m not a track guy — I’m a football player.”
The Patriots ran the triple option with Williams often burning defenders one on one deep.
Once he gained the corner — be it on a go route, a reverse, a return — nobody could touch him.
“He’s a world-class athlete,” Cumberlands track and field coach B.J. Temple said. “Athletic-wise, he’s as good as anybody. Running and jumping, he’s just scratching the surface as well.
“Most people talk about his 40, which is awesome, but that vertical? Forty-five inches? That’s exceptional and a test of explosiveness and that’s what a lot of scouts will look at.”
And yet, Williams nearly wasted his talent. Out of Bishop Ludden High School — where he caught 45 touchdowns his last two years — Williams’ desire waned. He skipped class. Ignored homework. Flunked out.
“It was a mix of immaturity and not doing my work,” Williams said. “I was just running around with my head cut off. ... It became, ‘Yeah, something will happen and I’ll get there,’ instead of just working for it. So I had to develop the mindset where nobody was going to give it to me.”
That’s when his phone lit up and a mentor entered his life. Will Dowdell, who he met years ago at the Southwest Community Center, reached out after speaking to Williams' mother.
Williams asked his friend to turn down the music in the car and listened closely. Dowdell's words still ring to this day: “We have to talk.”
Over dinner, that day, the two mapped out a future.
Williams would rally at Herkimer CC, transfer, play two years of college ball and enter the NFL Draft.
“Sometimes it takes somebody outside your family to say ‘You need a kick in your butt. I’m telling you this because you need it and I see something in you,'” said Williams, who'd earn a 3.5 GPA at Herkimer.
“He was the one who did it for me.”
The Cumberlands, a religious school of about 2,800 undergrads on a dry campus in Williamsburg, Kent., proved to be the perfect home. And, now, Williams believes he’ll fit “perfectly” into the NFL. He expects to return punts, kicks and be a deep threat vertically.
Said Williams, point blank, “The league is changing and I feel I fit the need as far as wide receivers. Small. Speed. Quick. There are stretch-the-field kind of wideouts nowadays and I feel I’m one of those.”
So NFL teams are learning as much as they can. At Western Kentucky’s pro day, Williams actually spoke to 30 NFL teams all at once. He told them his life story — how lazy he was, how he flipped the switch.
Soon, he’ll be more than some urban legend. This is a kid who grew up idolizing Dante Hall, who loves sitting at home taking notes with the Drake/Future Pandora station on his TV, who wants to take on Chris Johnson mano a mano. Johnson was sure to point out on Twitter that Williams' "laser" time was 4.32, saying "everybody relax."
Williams doesn’t have a Twitter account himself to publicly respond to the nine-year vet, so consider this his challenge.
“I’m not an enemy of his,” Williams assures. “I’m very honored to be mentioned in the same category. I’m a competitor just like him.”
A competitor who’ll be in a NFL camp soon.
“Drafted or undrafted,” he said, “I’m going to knock the door down. I just need my chance."
(Video via YouTube)
- Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss (6 foot 2, 221): The physical Treadmill isn’t a burner — he ran a sluggish 4.63 at his pro day — but he wins the contested ball and brings attitude, a nastiness to the position.
- Corey Coleman, Baylor (5-11, 194): Strong (17 reps at 225 pounds), athletic (40.5-inch vertical) and fast (4.37 at his pro day), Coleman is the most explosive wideout in the draft.
- Josh Doctson, TCU (6-2, 202): Consensus All-American had a school-record 79 receptions for 1,337 yards and 14 touchdowns and runs a smooth go route.
- Will Fuller, Notre Dame (6-0, 186): Fuller can fly as his sizzling 4.32 attests and he caught 62 balls for 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns but he’s still a smallish outside receiver, which could raise concerns.
- Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma (5-10, 194): Lacks size, projects as a slot receiver, but nifty enough to win against nickel corners (86-1,288-11).
- Braxton Miller, Ohio State (6-1, 201): Former college quarterback could still be a project at receiver, but he looked the part in Mobile during Senior Bowl week and offers versatility as a runner and/or passer.
- Tyler Boyd, Pitt (6-1, 197): Posted stellar numbers, despite sloppy quarterback play and isn’t afraid to take a lick over the middle of the field.
- Michael Thomas, Ohio State (6-3, 212): The more polished Buckeye receiver is Keyshawn Johnson’s nephew; finished with 56 catches, 781 yards, and nine touchdowns last season.
- Leonte Carroo, Rutgers (6-0, 211): Averaged more than 20 yards per catch in each of his last two seasons albeit in a play action-heavy scheme.
- Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina (5-11, 203): Grew up in military family — grandfather and father were Marines, his brother is a Marine — and played with such competitiveness even as the Gamecocks’ offense stammered through the 2015 season.