YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Damian Williams' jukes put USC's opponents out of joint

The Trojans' leading receiver is also a great deceiver, with faking ability that makes him extremely dangerous on punt returns. He's run back two for touchdowns this season.

October 27, 2009|Gary Klein

Damian Williams does it while walking to and from classes at USC.

He does it when navigating a crowded off-campus sidewalk.

As pedestrians approach from the opposite direction, Williams fakes. He cuts. He finds a seam, slips through and continues on his way.

Williams is practicing punt returns

"It used to be a game," he said. "Now it's a habit."

So is the fourth-year junior's propensity for making big plays.

Last week against Oregon State, Williams' 63-yard punt return for a touchdown proved to be the difference in a 42-36 victory at the Coliseum.

"The play of the year," Coach Pete Carroll said.

It was the second time this month Williams sparked the Trojans by taking a kick to the end zone. His 66-yard return at California on Oct. 3 helped send USC to a 30-3 victory.

"He told me before the season that he was really good at returning punts," safety Taylor Mays said. "I don't know if I believed him.

"I believe him now."

Williams, a team captain, has been a dynamic receiver the last two seasons, but his emergence as a scoring threat on punts gives the Trojans a weapon they have lacked since Reggie Bush returned two for touchdowns in 2004.

Not coincidentally, that was the season USC won the Bowl Championship Series title.

The Trojans, who are fifth in the BCS standings, can remain in the title-game hunt on Saturday if they defeat No. 10 Oregon at Eugene, Ore.

"The punt return team is all pumped about it," Carroll said of Williams. "They know if they just do a good, solid job for him he can make things happen.

"And that's the difference in the game."

Williams has always looked up to punt returners.

While playing at Springdale High in Arkansas, he watched on TV as Bush returned kicks for the Trojans and Devin Hester did the same for Miami.

"They were so fluid and so smooth," Williams said. "Reggie would just get there and cut and go. And Devin Hester, he would do whatever he wanted, even run around in circles, and then go."

Williams was a backup return specialist as a freshman at Arkansas in 2006, and he worked at catching kicks during practice after he transferred to USC in 2007.

He continued to do so last season but got only one opportunity while taking a back seat to Joe McKnight and Stafon Johnson.

Williams, who caught 58 passes and scored nine touchdowns in 2008, considered following Mark Sanchez into the NFL after the quarterback announced that he would pass up his final year of eligibility.

But he returned to finish his degree and prepare himself better for the pros.

Part of that included asking newly hired special-teams coach Brian Schneider for the opportunity to return punts.

"We were looking for the guy who was the best ball-catcher," Schneider said. "Who was the guy we could really trust to field the ball and make good decisions?

"It started there and he just kept running with it."

Williams equates returning punts to running with the ball after receptions.

"You're just trying to make people miss and get to the end zone," he said.

Williams did that against Notre Dame, taking a pass along the line of scrimmage and dashing 41 yards for a touchdown.

He has caught a team-leading 34 passes, three for touchdowns, and has been freshman quarterback Matt Barkley's go-to receiver.

"I kind of told Matt at the beginning of the year, 'I'm going to be your security blanket,' " Williams said. " 'If this isn't open or that's not open and you need something, I'll find a way to get open.'

"I think he kind of trusts in it."

Just as Williams trusts in his unorthodox punt return drills, which also incorporate objects such as living room couches and brick walls when people are not available.

"At every corner, I just cut," he says. "It seems kind of silly. People laugh at it, and I laugh at it.

"But it works."


Times staff writer David Wharton contributed to this report.

Los Angeles Times Articles