You’d Better Be Better
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Like many days last fall, Andre Williams was the most popular man at Alumni Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.
About two dozen NFL scouts were at the Boston College Pro Day, taking turns sidling up to the Heisman finalist during breaks in the two-hour workout. But Williams didn’t act like a big man on campus, or like a player back at his literal old stomping grounds—i.e. the turf where he pounded his feet for many of his 2,177 rushing yards last fall.
Williams had a few questions—concerns, even—showing an earnestness that seemed to delight one scout from an NFC team. What does it mean, he asked the scout, that he doesn’t have any private workouts set up yet for the coming weeks? Or, that most teams sent area scouts to his Pro Day, instead of, say, a running backs coach?
“That’s a good thing,” the scout reassured him.
Like all rookies-to-be, this process is new to the 21-year-old running back, whose path to the 2014 NFL draft we’re chronicling in a series on The MMQB. The scout explained to Williams that between a large and impressive body of work during his senior season, and a clean record off the field, he’s an easy evaluation for NFL teams.
But as he did each of the 355 times he carried the ball for Boston College last year, Williams is always looking to make extra gains. His goals on his pro day: 1) run the 40-yard dash faster than he did at last month’s combine and 2) catch the ball better, too.
This audition would be different from the pressure cooker of Indianapolis, where players are herded like cattle and branded with a number (though Williams did wear his combine-issued “RB35” warm-ups to his pro day). He would have a cheering section—the BC coaching staff—and he caught balls from his college quarterback, Chase Rettig. Perhaps for one of the last times, he felt like BC running back Andre Williams.
Williams flew into Boston last Saturday night, and on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, he and Rettig worked on their timing in Alumni Stadium. A few of their teammates joined them, too. One, Colin Larmond, a receiver who last played in 2012, took time off from his job in New Jersey to participate in the pro day. After Williams greeted Larmond, he thought about his own stock after that season, when the team finished 2-10 and he rushed for just 599 yards—a little more than one-quarter of his 2013 total. “He’s a great player—I think he just needs another chance,” Williams said regarding Larmond. “If I would have graduated junior year, I might have been in the same predicament.”
Williams caught 18 passes from Rettig on Tuesday morning in a final rehearsal, practicing each of the routes he'd be expected to perform in front of the scouts the next day: flat, swing, angle, out, in-breaking, wheel and corner. He dropped only one. “Do another one!” Rettig called out, and Williams snatched it easily.
Catching passes feels different to Williams now, and not by accident. After the combine, where he dropped two of his eight passes and resorted to body-catching a few others, he knew he had to do better. Williams’ legs were the lifeblood of coach Steve Addazio’s power-running scheme last season, but his gaudy stat line did not include a single reception. “You’ve got to be proactive,” Williams said. “My body is a business at this point.”
Former Notre Dame receiver Bobby Brown, whom Williams met at the Walter Camp Player of the Year awards ceremony, knew who could help: Bill Thierfelder, sports psychologist and president of Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. The weekend after the combine, Williams made the three-and-a-half hour drive from Atlanta, where he’s training and living with his older brother.
In a pair of two-hour sessions, Thierfelder coached Williams to “meet the ball with energy.” He practiced by catching racquetballs, since a smaller ball requires greater focus. He started juggling, too, a suggestion also made to him by an NFL running backs coach who called him after the combine. Williams is making the lessons learned from Thierfelder part of his BC legacy, too.
“I’m going to call you, and we need to talk about this,” Williams told freshman running back Myles Willis, when the former teammates ran into each other on campus Tuesday. “Really. It’s about actually seeing things, not just looking at them.”
Williams, who earned his applied psychology and human development degree in December, has a refreshing perspective among his NFL-bound peers. Last fall he completed an independent study with Audrey Friedman, an assistant dean in the Lynch School of Education, examining the development of high school students through how they present conflict in their personal writing.
When Williams roamed campus Tuesday afternoon, he stopped in Friedman’s first-floor office, and she yelped happily when he opened her door. She wrote down a book suggestion from him (“Many Mansions,” the story of psychic Edgar Cayce), and asked about the psychological tests and interviews he took at the combine.
“I would argue that would be your strongest part,” she told him. “Not that you're not a great athlete, because you are, but you have a soul. That's a good thing.”
Williams smiled shyly. “And how are you doing?” he asked.
Of course, at Wednesday’s pro day, athletics were front and center. Williams did not repeat the shuttle runs and broad jump, because he had been a top performer in those events at the combine. He wore his warm-ups until it was time to run the 40-yard dash.
Most scouts clocked Williams in the low 4.5s on his first run—about the same as, or slightly better, than his combine run of 4.56 seconds. But he’d popped up too quickly out of his start and was eager for the second try. The scouts’ times varied on this attempt, but some scouts said they clocked him as fast as the low 4.4s, a strong time for a 230-pound power back. After a third bonus run, Williams said the scouts he talked to congratulated him on improving from the combine.
He changed into different cleats, and receivers’ gloves so new they squeaked, for position drills. Rettig threw to him eight times; Williams dropped one pass, a flat route, but made the same catch on a second try. The act of catching came more naturally than two weeks earlier, showcased on a 40-yard corner route, on which he stuck the ball cleanly on his hands. “Better,” one scout said afterward. Said another scout, “He did well catching. That’s not going to hinder anything.”
In the BC cheering section, the loudest voice was tight ends coach Frank Leonard, who let out a thunderous “Woooo!” when Williams made the catch on the deep corner route. Leonard, a former Patriots scout and Rams position coach, sounded like a proud uncle as he sent Williams off toward the NFL world he knows well.
“You go hard, man,” Leonard said. “You'll enjoy it. You'll have a lot of fun in this league. Love you.”
“Love you back,” said Williams.