It's the most unexpected story of the NFL season, but USC Coach Lane Kiffin said it doesn't surprise him in the least.
Mike Williams, the former Trojans star receiver drafted 10th overall by the Detroit Lions in 2005, has resurfaced after two years out of football to emerge as a central figure in the Seattle Seahawks' offense. He has caught 21 passes in the past two games — more than his last two NFL seasons combined, when he bounced from the Lions to the Oakland Raiders to the Tennessee Titans.
"Every day when I go to practice I pass a wall with all the pictures of All-Americans on it," Kiffin said. "There's a little paragraph underneath each player, and under Mike's one of the things is 'CBS National Player of the Year,' and he was only a sophomore. Not just the top receiver, the top player in America.
"So this isn't a big surprise. It was just about him getting himself refocused like he was here."
While Williams' college career is commemorated on a wall, his pro career simply slammed into one. He fizzled with the Lions and was traded after two seasons to the Raiders, where even then-coach Kiffin — the person who recruited him to USC — couldn't sufficiently motivate him. Overweight and marginally motivated, he was released after seven games.
A month later, Tennessee offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who also had coached him at USC, persuaded the Titans to sign him. Williams appeared in two games for the Titans and was released before catching a pass.
In those three seasons, Williams had 44 catches and two touchdowns — not what had been expected when the Lions signed him to a five-year, $13.5-million deal with $10.5 million guaranteed.
Understandably, Williams doesn't like to dwell on that chapter of his career.
Williams' pro career began with a false start. He had hoped to enter the 2004 draft when he was just two years removed from high school and the country's hottest college receiver. The courts ruled against bending NFL rules to do so, however, and because Williams had hired an agent he was ineligible to return to college football. He had to sit out the 2004 season and couldn't even practice with USC.
"It's a unique situation, the road I've traveled," he said in a phone interview Thursday. "But everyone always has an opinion about me — what I was, who I was or whatever. Nobody knew me. They just knew what people said or wrote about me.
"Regardless of what was said about me or regardless of what happened in the past, what I'm doing now is all that's important. That's the only thing I control."
In that sense, he's made a clean break from the past. Reunited with former USC coach Pete Carroll, the 6-foot-5 Williams reported to training camp at 233 pounds, about 40 pounds lighter than his last go-round. What's more, he had no expectations about getting special treatment and instead treated this opportunity as if he were an undrafted rookie looking to claw his way onto the team.
"I knew that my situation was going to bring a lot of attention," he said. "I just wanted to come in here and do my work and try to fly under the radar."
Soon enough, he was a bright blip on that radar screen, but for the right reasons. In his first exhibition game, he beat the defense — Tennessee's defense, mind you — for a 51-yard touchdown.
"This is the way I felt Mike would always play when he got to the league," Carroll said. "I'm thrilled for him that he's gotten the chance and he's answered the call, and he's coming through and helping us win football games. But what you're looking for now is consistency."
Carroll said that, just as in college, it's Williams' size and ability to make big plays that set him apart.
"His stature really is an issue for guys and there's no way to escape the fact that he's 6-5 and he has terrific hands," the coach said. "You know he can keep [defensive backs] that are right on him a long ways from the ball."
The Seahawks, atop the NFC West at 4-2, play at Oakland on Sunday, giving Williams a chance to face the team that kept him around for less than half a season.
Asked how he looks at this opportunity with the Seahawks, Williams said: "I'm just worried about playing well. I feel like I've come into a place where people care about winning, they care about people being good people, they care about playing at the highest level.
"I don't feel like people are out to get me, or make an example of me, or out to prove a point … just different issues that come up. I just feel like the most important thing here is doing right and playing good ball. That's all you can ask for."
Of course, it's tough to make an assessment on the basis of two productive Sundays, and Williams is the first to emphasize that.
"I don't think I'm at that point yet where teams come into their meeting and say, 'OK, we've got to stop this guy,' " he said.
"It's just two good weeks."