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Sam Farmer / ON THE NFL

Williams May Soon Run Out of Chances

September 15, 2006|Sam Farmer

Mike Williams is in his second season with the Detroit Lions, but the former USC receiver is still helping the Trojans in ways he never imagined.

And in ways he never wanted to.

Williams, you see, has become a cautionary tale, a how-not-to guide for college standouts considering leaving school early to chase their NFL dreams. Oh, he's financially set; his rookie contract as the No. 10 selection included $10.5 million in guaranteed money. But the likelihood of his ever making a meaningful contribution as an NFL player is diminishing by the week.

Even though he was healthy, he was deactivated for last Sunday's opener against Seattle.

"It was shocking to me, to say the least," Williams told reporters this week. "Maybe it was punishment for the off-season, whatever it was. I have done everything in the book to get in there.

"I was brought here to be a starter. I was not brought here not to dress for the season opener."

The player who once hoped to follow Ohio State's Maurice Clarett into the pros after two years of college football, then had to sit out a year of football when Clarett failed to sue his way into the league, has been an unmitigated flop for the Lions. Out of shape and chronically tardy to meetings, Williams was fined tens of thousands of dollars as a rookie.

According to the collective bargaining agreement the league operated under last season, a team could fine an overweight player as much as $457 per extra pound per day. Players could be fined $9,300 for being late to a meeting, and as much as triple that for repeat violations.

"Mike Williams has been fined, yeah, he's been fined a few times," former Lions coach Steve Mariucci told the NFL Network. "He's got to get with it.... Some rookies become professionals a little sooner than others. Just because you sign a contract, it doesn't make you a pro."

When he was playing for USC, Williams looked like an NFL Hall of Famer in the making. He was making spectacular one-handed catches for the Trojans, throwing a touchdown pass in the Rose Bowl, helping Carson Palmer win the Heisman Trophy, and planting the seeds for Matt Leinart's stardom. Hard to believe that now he can't even find his way onto the field.

Williams played in 14 games as a rookie, starting four of them, and finished with 29 catches for 350 yards with one touchdown.

His lack of speed has always been an issue. But the Lions and other teams were convinced that, at 6 feet 4 and 229 pounds, he was big enough to manhandle defensive backs and outleap them for jump balls. There's even been some talk of converting him to tight end. So far, it's just talk.

Williams, it seems, has turned out to be USC's version of J.J. Stokes, a great college receiver too lumbering to make it in the pros.

It's not as if the Williams saga is going to stem the flow completely of college standouts leaving school early for the pros. (Last spring, for instance, USC juniors Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Winston Justice, Darnell Bing and Fred Matua declared for the draft as juniors.) But the Trojans definitely use Williams as Exhibit A for staying in school.

"It was such a glaring mistake because of the circumstances," USC Coach Pete Carroll told The Times' Gary Klein. "He didn't get to play and had to sit out too, where he missed everything. He's a good example for us of guys kind of following what they think is going to happen, and they don't use the real concrete information that we have."

Things have gotten this bad: When Williams was deactivated for last week's opener, it was to make room for receiver Devale Ellis, who was promptly waived a day after the 9-6 defeat. Ellis was later added to the Lions' practice squad.

Making things even more bleak for Williams -- who probably would be looking for work if not for the steep salary-cap hit the Lions would take by cutting him now -- is that Detroit signed free-agent receiver Az-Zahir Hakim on Tuesday. That move reunites Hakim and his former St. Louis coach, Mike Martz, now Detroit's offensive coordinator.

The Lions, who repeatedly have made bad choices at the top of the draft, have been reluctant to discuss the Williams situation. Asked Thursday if Williams would be activated for Sunday's game at Chicago, Martz was noncommittal.

"I'm not sure. I really don't know," he said. "He's had a real good week of practice. I'm very pleased with his effort and where he is. He's making progress, and it's a real good thing to see."

Williams, for one, is hoping this will be his week.

"I learned a long time ago that my opinion isn't important and it doesn't make things happen," he said. "One thing coach Mike Martz told me was to take responsibility for everything I can control. I am just pushing forward and moving on."

Moving on? Maybe sooner than he thinks.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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