Charger looks back at ca­reer-altering catch

A team in­jury gave Williams a shot in 2015 fi­nale, and he made the most of it.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Mike DiGio­vanna

SAN DIEGO — Tyrell Williams is kind of like that 1996 Pontiac Grand Prix he bought for $900 as a col­lege fresh­man, a green sedan with 274,000 miles on it that he still drives when he’s home in Ore­gon — mod­est, unas­sum­ing, of­ten over­looked.

“It’s a good car, a re­li­able car,” the Charg­ers wide re­ceiver said with a grin dur­ing last week’s mini­camp. “And it’s still rolling.”

Just like its owner, de­spite the road­blocks that nearly thwarted his ca­reer.

Williams didn’t re­ceive any ma­jor col­lege schol­ar­ship of­fers af­ter star­ring in three sports at tiny Cas­cade High in Turner, Ore., so he went to West­ern Ore­gon, an ob­scure Di­vi­sion II school in Mon­mouth, to play foot­ball.

He did not get picked in the 2015 NFL draft af­ter a solid col­lege ca­reer in which he caught 165 passes for 2,792 yards and 21 touch­downs, so Williams signed as a free agent with the Charg­ers with lit­tle chance of mak­ing the team.

Though he earned a 53man ros­ter spot out of train-

ing camp in 2015, Williams was rel­e­gated to spe­cial teams — as a “gun­ner” on the punt team — in the few games he played in, and he spent two months on the prac­tice squad.

Then his ca­reer tra­jec­tory shot up­ward on one play in the sea­son fi­nale, an 80-yard touch­down catch early in the fourth quar­ter of a 27-20 loss to the even­tual Su­per Bowl cham­pion Den­ver Bron­cos in Sports Author­ity Field.

An in­jury pushed Williams into the play­ing ro­ta­tion at re­ceiver, but the heav­ily fa­vored Bron­cos, with their stout de­fense, were smoth­er­ing the Charg­ers’ pass­ing game with a cover-four zone.

“We needed a four-beater, and we didn’t have it in the game plan,” Charg­ers re­ceivers coach Nick Siri­anni said. “So we drew up a ‘scis­sors’ play for Tyrell.”

Williams lined up in the slot to the right of tight end John Phillips, who ran a quick out pat­tern to­ward the right side­line. Philip Rivers, from his 20-yard line, dropped back af­ter a play­ac­tion fake.

Williams broke off the line, gave Aquib Talib a head nod as if he was break­ing right, and sprinted past the star de­fen­sive back and to­ward the post. Williams was wide open when he caught the pass at the Den­ver 45 and con­tin­ued un­touched to the end zone to give the Charg­ers a 20-17 lead.

It was Williams’ first NFL catch, the long­est first catch by a player in Charg­ers fran­chise his­tory, and a ca­reer­al­ter­ing catch for the re­ceiver.

“It def­i­nitely catapulted me,” Williams, 25, said. “Just to be out there, to get the feel of the game, go­ing through the routes and block­ing, and then to get that play drawn up on the side­lines and to run it … I mean, there’s no bet­ter way to get your first catch. It let me know I could play. I got the feel of it. I wanted more.”

Williams en­tered train­ing camp in 2016 as the team’s third or fourth re­ceiver. Then vet­eran re­ceiver Ste­vie John­son suf­fered a sea­so­nend­ing knee in­jury in early Au­gust, and star re­ceiver Keenan Allen suf­fered a sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury in the opener against Kansas City.

Thrust into a start­ing role, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Williams had a break­out sea­son, lead­ing the Charg­ers with 69 re­cep­tions for 1,059 yards and seven touch­downs. He was tar­geted a team-high 119 times.

“In­juries gave me the op­por­tu­nity,” Williams said. “I wanted to make the most of it.”

Known for his abil­ity to turn short passes into big gains, Williams was fifth in the NFL in re­cep­tions of more than 25 yards, with 13. Roughly 70% of his catches went for first downs.

“He caught so many five­yard shal­low routes, where all Philip had to do was flip him the ball, and turned them into big plays,” Siri­anni said.

“You get this guy run­ning with the foot­ball … he’s big and he’s strong and he’s fast. He was able to stretch the de­fense and get behind guys on deep cross­ing routes.”

Look­ing at Williams’ sta­tis­tics, his abil­ity and the im­pact he had on a 5-11 team last sea­son, it’s nat­u­ral to won­der: How did this guy not get drafted?

“That’s a good ques­tion,” said Arne Fer­gu­son, West­ern Ore­gon coach. “We thought he was very tal­ented. He had size and speed. He was dou­ble cov­ered his whole se­nior year and still had an amaz­ing sea­son. Every­body who came through here liked him.”

Not many scouts came through, though, and for those who did, it was tough to eval­u­ate Williams against lesser com­pe­ti­tion. Williams also was slowed by a shoul­der in­jury that re­quired surgery af­ter his se­nior sea­son.

Williams shined at his pre­draft pro day at Ore­gon State, where he caught passes from then-Beavers quar­ter­back and now-Rams backup Sean Man­nion. But his name was not called in the draft.

“I think it was be­cause I was a small-school Di­vi­sion II guy,” Williams said. “I never re­ally found out why I wasn’t drafted. I used it as mo­ti­va­tion.”

The Charg­ers were the only team to call Williams af­ter the draft, so Williams signed and headed for San Diego with one goal: “To do some­thing to make the coaches no­tice me ev­ery sin­gle day,” he said.

That meant work­ing hard in the weight room, learn­ing the play­book, catch­ing ev­ery­thing thrown his way in prac­tice and ex­celling in pre­sea­son games on of­fense and spe­cial teams.

“I just wanted an op­por­tu­nity to keep play­ing foot­ball,” Williams said.

Williams made the most of his chance, emerg­ing as Rivers’ fa­vorite tar­get last sea­son, but that doesn’t guar­an­tee him a start­ing job — or even a ma­jor role — when the Charg­ers be­gin train­ing camp in Costa Mesa in late July and be­gin play come Septem­ber.

Allen is back from his in­jury, Don­trelle In­man (58 catches, 810 yards, four touch­downs) and speedy wide­out Travis Benjamin (47 catches, 677 yards, four touch­downs) are com­ing off solid sea­sons, and the Charg­ers used the sev­enth pick in the draft on star wide re­ceiver Mike Williams of Clem­son.

The Charg­ers also have two stand­out tight ends in An­to­nio Gates and Hunter Henry, and Melvin Gor­don is a pass-catch­ing threat com­ing out of the back­field.

Tyrell Williams looks at the abun­dance of re­ceivers and the ad­di­tion of Mike Williams as a boon to the Charg­ers, not a threat to his job.

“I was ex­cited to bring in an­other guy who can help our of­fense,” Williams said. “There’s no bad blood be­tween any of us. We’re all go­ing out and try­ing to win games. We have so many weapons, you can’t just key on one guy. I think our of­fense is go­ing to be one of the best in the league.”

K.C. Al­fred San Diego Union-Tri­bune

TYRELL WILLIAMS led the Charg­ers with 69 catches for 1,059 yards and seven touch­downs in 2016.

K.C. Al­fred San Diego Union-Tri­bune

TYRELL WILLIAMS of the Charg­ers, go­ing up against Chris Har­ris Jr. of the Bron­cos, had 13 re­cep­tions of more than 25 yards last sea­son.

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