COSTA MESA, Calif. -- It is midweek during training camp. The Los Angeles Chargers are nearing the end of a practice at which many veteran starters have been given the day off. That means extra reps for those on the field. The heat is not oppressive, but it's enough to get your attention. Bodies are tired. Legs are heavy. Concentration is waning. Then Mike Williams does something that makes you forget all of that.
The second-year wide receiver tracks a pass down the sideline, soars over a cornerback who is in tight coverage and snares the ball at its highest point, leaving the defender to look helpless as Williams strides for the end zone. It is not the first time teammates have seen this movie, but the ending never gets old. They know they are seeing something special, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound talent who can beat you with his physicality, speed or athleticism -- sometimes all on the same play. The only person not impressed is Williams, who says he won't be satisfied until he's doing it in games as well as practice.
Three days later, in the Chargers' preseason game against the Seahawks, a defender has tight coverage on Williams in the corner of the end zone when Geno Smith lofts a pass high in that direction. And just as he had done in the practice, Williams soars to high-point the ball for a touchdown. Los Angeles' sideline is so excited that even defenders run to the end zone to celebrate with Williams, who suddenly appears poised to make good on the promise that led the Bolts to select him with the seventh overall pick in last year's draft.
The desire to excel was there a year ago, but back and knee injuries contributed to Williams spending more time in the training room than in the huddle. At times, he felt like an outsider in his own home, like he was in detention while everyone else was at recess. It stunted his development and contributed to him catching only 11 passes total. It also caused some fans to wonder if the Chargers had made a mistake in drafting him.
Now healthy, Williams' stock is soaring like his leap in the end zone. He made a difficult catch appear so easy that minds immediately raced with thoughts of what could be, and how the Chargers could have one of the largest and most talented receiver groups in the NFL. Williams joins 6-foot-2 Pro Bowler Keenan Allen and 6-4 threat Tyrell Williams. While each is talented in his own right, Williams' ability to effectively run every route with his combination of size, athleticism and speed draws your attention.
"I was watching Mike walk out here the other day -- I was behind him -- and I would have thought it was a speed-rush defensive end," coach Anthony Lynn says. "He's a big man when you get those pads on, and he's going to be another viable option for us. We've got Keenan, but people can double him. They can go double-double on the outside, so you're going to need another big target. I think Mike can do that. We may be in more three-wide receiver sets if he keeps coming. Right now, we're putting him in situations to make plays and he keeps making them."
A lot of credit goes to Williams himself, but an ample share belongs to receivers coach Phil McGeoghan, who has the delicate job of breaking down a high-profile young star while simultaneously building him up. McGeoghan had to bring him through the emotional strains of a difficult rookie season. He had to be firm yet gentle, demanding yet understanding. He had to keep Williams up when he might be down. That required the two of them wanting and striving for the same thing.
"When you're young, you're very defensive and a little bit entitled when you come in," McGeoghan says. "You have to tear those defense mechanisms down while building their confidence up. It's a hard thing to do for a young football player to be a really good teammate, to drop his defenses, to allow you to coach him hard but understand it's coming from a place of love. Sometimes you have to do a lot of correction initially, and until they have the right mindset and accept the coaching and aren't defensive and don't think you're just trying to tear them down without a purpose, it can be tough."
One way McGeoghan builds trust is through long conversations in the cool of a meeting room rather than the heat of the practice field. He tries to learn about each player's background and goals. He wants to know the triggers that allow him to push them in times of adversity. With Williams, the trigger was greatness.
"He said to me he wants to be great. He said that, not me," McGeoghan says. "Well, if you say that to me -- I watched Jerry Rice from the practice squad, I watched Tim Brown on the practice field and Fred Biletnikoff as a position coach (all are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as receivers), so if it ain't that standard, then it's not good enough. And if you don't want to meet that standard and be coached that way, then don't tell me that you want to be great. Just say, I want to make the team. Or I want to play 16 games. Or I want to be on the special teams. Just be honest with me, because I'm going to be honest with you. Mike absolutely has been honest with me and himself; that's why you've seen that skyrocket trajectory that everybody sees every day and that has everybody super excited."
Williams doesn't run from his expectations. The former Clemson star and Vance, South Carolina, native wants to be great. Actually, he needs to be great.
"I feel like I've got a lot of weight on my shoulders, the whole city where I'm from," he says. "I told everybody back home that I'm doing this for everybody, not just me. My mom, my family back home, my friends -- everybody is a part of this journey who helped me get to where I am today. So I've just got to continue to support those people and keep my word. I'm coming out and getting better each day, like I told them I would, and I'm just sticking to (my goal of) being great. The sky is the limit."
It's easy to talk the talk, but McGeoghan knows there are no shortcuts. That's why he got on Williams the first day of training camp when the 23-year-old failed to give full effort during a run drill. Later that day, the two discussed the "why" behind the coach's tough love. Williams acknowledged it was because of his stated desire to be great. McGeoghan then doubled down and challenged Williams to come back the next day and go full tilt during a run drill.
"He had an unbelievable session," McGeoghan says, "and then he made a number of downfield plays that subsequently happened after his mindset was correct. It's not a coincidence that that happens in football. When you become a good teammate, all of a sudden the world starts to fall into place. If you're good at home, oftentimes you come in here with a good mindset where you can learn and grow and develop. If you're all over the place in your social life and things, then you come here and you're not going to be great. It's a total comprehensive makeover or mindset flip for a young man to become a man."
Williams does not mind being pushed. He is healthy and hungry. He knows where he wants to go and has a purpose in his stride.
"I don't think people can understand what it was like last year," he says. "They would say, 'Oh, he was a top pick, he needs to be out there or he's going to be a bust.' I'm like, Whaaaaatt? I wasn't healthy. ... But I let those things motivate me. The Chargers know what type of guy they got. The coaches know. All those people who said [something negative] are the same people saying I'm going to have a great year. So I'm just going to continue to control what I can control, and that's me coming out here every day and getting better and just doing what I can do."
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