The final round of calls started trickling in late last week. Any team that has you on its draft board, Andre Williams’ agent had told him, will call to make sure it can reach you during the three-day selection process.
Sure enough, Williams heard from all but three or four teams. They confirmed his cell phone number and a secondary contact number, his older brother’s cell. Then the scouts asked two more critical questions: Have you had any injuries since your pro day? No. Have you gotten in any trouble since your pro day? No, certainly not in Schnecksville, Pa., population 2,935, where Williams has been holed up for the past week.
Sometimes, that was it. The scout would hang up, the phone call lasting no more than 30 seconds. Other scouts wanted to chat for several minutes. But Williams has been schooled to be wary of reading into anything.
“They’re playing a game with each other,” Williams says, “and everyone still has their poker face on.”
During the final hours before the 2014 NFL draft begins at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Williams—the former Boston College running back whose journey to the NFL we’ve been chronicling on The MMQB—actually feels a sense of relief. The weeks of speculation, two more weeks than in previous league calendars, are almost over.
Hanging out with his family for the past week suits Williams’ personality. He’s been playing with his dogs (Sasha, a blue-nosed pit bull, and Sam, a yellow lab), perfecting a jerk ginger-lime BBQ sauce that, he says, “will be a big part of the meal” this weekend, and keeping up his workouts with a high school buddy: shoulders and back on Tuesday, legs on Wednesday. Each time his phone rings, though, a family member eagerly asks him, “What are you hearing?”
One of Williams’ longer conversations was with a Giants scout who explained that his boss Tom Coughlin, a former Boston College coach, has a soft spot for BC players and an even softer spot for hard-nosed runners.
“And I certainly do that,” Williams says. “But I’m not sure how that relates to where I am on their draft board, or if they’ll try to get me, or how it will play out in the end, anyway. It can be pretty random. You can’t tell what will happen from a single phone call.”
The only call that matters is the one he’ll get in the next 60 or so hours, but he’s not expecting it to come on the first day of the draft. Williams was a 2013 Heisman finalist and the recipient of the Doak Walker Award, given to college football’s best running back, but he figures he’ll be picked between the second and fifth rounds. Last year was the first time in the Super Bowl era that no running back was selected in the first round, and this year is expected to be the second.
But Williams isn’t fazed by talk of his position being devalued in the NFL ranks, just as he was never discouraged by the small number of players who make Division I football from high school, or the pros from Division I. Big, bruising backs aren’t exactly in vogue right now, but after the 230-pound Williams logged 2,177 rushing yards on 355 carries last fall, one of his proudest moments was when Hall of Famer Earl Campbell dubbed Williams “Little Earl” at the Heisman ceremony in December. (He and Campbell later exchanged autographed jerseys.)
Williams is more than a bruiser—he was clocked as fast as the low 4.4s in the 40-yard dash at his March pro day—which is one of the things teams like about him. Just listen to Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta describe Williams: “Intriguing guy … Big, physical downhill runner … Very tough to tackle … A good zone runner … He can move the pile, he’s good in short yardage and he can run fast.” (The Ravens, by the way, are looking to draft a running back.) As Boston College coach Steve Addazio puts it, there are big backs, and there are small, fast backs, but there aren’t a lot of big, fast backs like Williams.
For 128 days, since Boston College played its bowl game, Williams’ future has been suspended. It’s a long time to wait, although Williams hasn’t exactly been idle. The 21-year-old had skills to improve (he met with a sports psychologist to help with his pass-catching), lessons to learn from old pros (he trained with former NFL running back Garrison Hearst) and off-the-field dreams to fill up his free time. On Tuesday he FedExed a non-disclosure agreement to a mechanical engineer who’s going to help with an invention Williams wants to patent.
But for a planner like Williams, this holding pattern has been a bit vexing. He’s run through different scenarios in his mind: Will I be living on the West Coast, or maybe in the Northeast? Will the team that drafts me use me as a bell cow, or as part of a committee? For an instant he sounds a little bit like an incoming college freshman again, wanting to both fit in and stand out.
“Most of all, I just hope that whatever team picks me up knows what they are getting,” Williams says. “I don’t want them to think that just because I am a deep thinker and I have big dreams that I’m not concerned with the task at hand, playing football and having a great NFL career, because that does come first and foremost. I want somebody to not just see what I’ve done and what I’m good at, but to see my entire potential and my work ethic so they can continue to mentor me and bring out my abilities.”
Those football abilities have brought his family together on several occasions—the last time was the Doak Walker ceremony in December—and this weekend will be another. His mom cleaned out the garage and put a TV in there so all four of the Williams kids and their closest loved ones can barbecue and watch the draft on Friday and Saturday. She asked if Williams wanted a DJ, but he told her no.
There’s one question that Williams hasn’t answered to anybody, nor will he in the remaining hours: What team do you want to draft you? He has four or five in mind, but that’s information he’s keeping to himself. Soon enough, only one team will matter.