Once on path to greatness, Williams now fights to prove he belongs in NFL
Trey Williams has always been hard to contain. To understand what the 22-year-old running back brings to a potential NFL team, it’s best to start there. He is an escape artist of sorts, and has possessed a knack for maneuvering out of tough situations basically since birth: When he was a baby, he climbed out of his crib with such regularity that a video of him doing it exists online.
When Trey was seven months old, he knew how to walk. When he was 1 ½, he scrambled around the assorted furniture in his living room. Then there was the fabled sandwich incident.
Trey was three when his oldest brother, Philip Williams Jr., struck him a deal. Trey wanted Philip to fix him a PB&J. Philip, then 15, wanted Trey to earn it. So Philip came up with a plan: If Trey could run past their other brother, Tyson, who was six at the time, then Philip would grab the peanut butter and jelly and happily oblige.
“I was like, O.K., if you wanna get something to eat, all you gotta do is run into the kitchen without letting Tyson knock you down,” Philip Jr. says. “I handed Tyson a pillow and said, ‘Tyson, when he tries to run in there you just knock him down.’”
Little Trey bolted from the living room toward the kitchen. Tyson planted his feet and braced for impact. Then Trey did something he would do countless times over the coming years, something that became the stuff of legend in the Williams family. He deked Tyson, improbably pirouetting to his destination. “The dude hit me with like an in-and-out spin move,” Tyson says. “It was so quick I couldn’t do nothing.”
Trey would make many defenders feel helpless over the course of his development. After initially training with Tyson and his father in his front yard, he blossomed into a star tailback at Dekaney High in Houston, and then at Texas A&M. Now he is in Katy, Texas, preparing for the 2015 NFL draft, and is being projected as a sixth- or seventh-round pick, if he gets taken at all.
The chances of teams finding a star in the late rounds of the draft are slim. For every Tom Brady there are lots more guys like Sherrod Gideon, the wide receiver who was taken with the pick directly following Brady in 2000 and never made an NFL catch. But to find that elusive gem, maybe it’s wise to consider the most elusive prospect.
This year’s NFL draft class, at least on paper, features one of the deepest crops of running backs in recent memory. There is Melvin Gordon, the record-setter from Wisconsin, who rushed for a staggering 2,587 yards in 2014. There is Todd Gurley, the dynamic talent out of Georgia, who emerged as the Heisman Trophy favorite last fall before being suspended and later tearing his ACL. There are 10 other backs who could go before the end of the third round. Among them: Jay Ajayi, Duke Johnson, Tevin Coleman, T.J. Yeldon and David Cobb.
Yet none of those prospects is quite as slippery as Williams, the shifty, undersized (5’7”, 195 pounds) back who was used sparingly in college. His ceiling is seen as a special teams playmaker, or perhaps a change-of-pace weapon in the Darren Sproles mold. But there are reasons to believe he could be more.
For starters, ask Willie Amendola, Williams’s former head coach at Dekaney High.
Dekaney’s football team debuted in 2008, when the Wildcats’ fledgling roster finished 0-9. Three years later the team went 14-2 and won the Texas Class 5A Division II state title. That’s thanks mostly to Williams, who impressed Amendola with one of his first touches—a kick return he took for a touchdown—and only kept dazzling from there. Williams finished his prep career with 8,110 rushing yards on 935 carries and delivered a steady stream of how-the-hell-did-he-do-that highlights. “Goodness gracious, as soon as he touched the ball and took off running and made a cut, I was like, it’s over,” says Amendola, the father of New England Patriots receiver Danny Amendola. “We’re all right. We’re gonna be O.K.”
Or take this endorsement from D’Juan Hines, Williams’s quarterback at Dekaney who now plays linebacker at the University of Houston. He handed off to Williams more than 400 times in 2011, when Williams rushed for a Class 5A-record 3,890 yards with 48 touchdowns. According to Hines, who has been friends with Williams since both were in grade school, the back once broke “at least 11 tackles on the way to [a] touchdown” and boasts a make-you-miss style resembling LeSean McCoy’s. “When he gets the ball he already is at like 4.3 speed,” Hines says. “When he’s running it looks like he’s just floating above the ground, how fast he moves.”
The NFL draft is a time plagued by hyperbole, when there’s talk of the best and the fastest and the most controversial. It’s a time when some anecdotes transform into myths, while others are thoroughly shattered. But this much is accurate: Williams graduated from Dekaney as one of the most decorated backs in Texas high school history. He was ranked as the No. 3 overall prospect in the nation, according to Rivals.com, and seemed destined for collegiate greatness.
Yet his ascent stalled from there. He was originally recruited by Mike Sherman’s coaching staff at Texas A&M, but was forced to reconsider after Sherman was fired on the heels of a 6-6 season in December 2011. In fact, that news came to Williams’s attention in one of the most bizarre ways imaginable. Running backs coach Randy Jordan was in his living room when Sherman called to inform him he’d been let go. “Randy was in total shock,” says Trey’s dad, Philip Williams Sr. “You could see it on his face and everything when he was talking on the phone. And then he let us know what had happened. That was really a heck of a news hot flash.”
After weighing his list of offers, Trey ultimately reaffirmed his pledge to new Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin. But he never got a chance to shine. As a result of the offense’s backfield-by-committee approach, he collected a combined 204 carries during his three years on campus. Gordon, by comparison, racked up 343 carries in his senior season at Wisconsin alone.
While Williams maintains that a lack of carries did not factor into his decision to forgo his final year of NCAA eligibility (he declared for the draft on New Year’s Eve), some contend otherwise. Most vocal may be Philip Jr., who can’t comprehend why the player who averaged 6.6 yards per carry throughout his A&M career spent so much of his time riding the bench. “It just never made sense to me,” Philip says. “I felt like, here’s a guy who is one of the top backs in the nation and he’s not getting the ball, then why’d you bring him? Why bring him in if you’re not gonna use him?”
Says Hines, “Of course he should’ve been getting a lot more carries than he was. But, hey, that’s the way it was going. He just went with it. He never really complained.”
Given Williams’s tenure at Texas A&M, two questions rise to the fore: Why didn’t he get more carries? And what can his limited sample size tell us about his potential?
The answer to the first question isn’t clear. Sumlin was complimentary of Williams when talking to reporters at the Aggies’ pro day March 4. (Sumlin could not be reached for comment.) And while Sumlin’s offense was effective in 2014—A&M averaged 6.33 yards per play, tied for 27th nationally—the running game left plenty to be desired, averaging 149.9 yards per game, 84th in the FBS. Williams carried 81 times for 560 yards with seven touchdowns last year, finishing third on the team in attempts behind Tra Carson (124 carries for 581 yards with five scores) and Brandon Williams (87 carries for 379 yards with three touchdowns). It’s also worth noting that A&M dismissed offensive line coach B.J. Anderson last December, hiring run game coordinator Dave Christensen in January to take his place.
While the discrepancy between Williams’s touches and productivity is obvious, there are mitigating factors to take into account. For one, Sumlin has always used a pass-first scheme. And Williams has never been a standout blocker, and admitted as much during an interview in February. “I’m not even gonna lie,” he says. “That’s tough. But I’m still working on it. I’m not terrible at it. I’m not bad at it. It’s something I’m working on getting better at.”
Ben Malena, a free-agent NFL tailback who started in front of Williams at A&M in 2012 and ’13, also hints there may have been a learning curve involved. Malena is quick to call Williams the most physically gifted back he has ever been around—“He could basically do anything that he wanted to do,” he marvels—but insinuates the mental component may have come less naturally.
“I wanted him to realize how talented he was, but I wanted him to realize that talent that he has, it doesn’t mean anything if the mental aspect of the game doesn’t come with it,” says Malena, who mentored Williams in college and remains a close friend. “I’m not saying that everyone has the talent that he has, but everyone has talent. In a certain sense, you can get left behind easily or go away faster if you don’t understand the mental aspect of the game.”
Which brings up the second question. What can Williams’s experience tell us? For that, there are two plays to which to point. The first and more glamorous comes from A&M’s game at Ole Miss on Oct. 12, 2013. With the score tied 7-7 late in the first quarter, Williams took a handoff, broke left, cut right, hopped left and then jump-cut back to the right, confounding five would-be tacklers en route to a score. His footwork was impeccable—a rapid succession of devastating moves Williams has become known for in the open field. “What Trey Williams did, people were saying it was Barry Sanders-like,” Malena says. “I don’t say it was Barry Sanders-like. I just say that was Trey Williams-like. That was just sick.”
The second example, however, is less well known. Texas A&M led Auburn 41-38 in the final three minutes of their matchup on Nov. 8, 2014. Williams caught a pitch in his own end zone when he was met by a charging unblocked defender, but he broke free to scamper past the goal line and keep the drive alive. It was the type of play he hopes to show NFL teams he is routinely capable of, particularly given that his ability to shed tackles is perceived as a weakness—an NFL.com scouting report says he has “little to no strength as a runner.”(Go to the 0:30-mark of the below clip.)
Williams’s uncommon vision and explosiveness are established. But does he have the requisite toughness to evolve into a workhorse, every-down player?
“I think you find more truth and consistency in just some of the smaller plays,” Philip Jr. says, “some of the small, two-, three-yard gains where he shouldn’t have got anything.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Williams emerged as one of the stars of the NFL combine in Indianapolis last month. He finished third among running backs with a 4.49 40 time, and impressed in both the three-cone drill (6.84 seconds) and the 20-yard shuttle (4.12 seconds). His performance reinforced the notion that he has game-breaking capabilities, but did little to dispel doubts about his size or limited workload. (Although the latter could prove to be a positive given concerns about the longevity of backs who have amassed too many carries.) Over the next few weeks at private workouts he’ll have to show he can play a little bit of everything: wideout, slot receiver, return man, running back.
He’ll work to display every facet of the player he could become. Yet his success or failure will largely depend on his ability to keep doing what he has always done.
Before participating in drills at the combine, Williams, like all prospects, was put through a series of medical tests. He was diagnosed with a sports hernia during his freshman season at A&M, so he required an MRI scan to examine his pelvis. That’s when he realized he has claustrophobia. “I was good for about 25 minutes,” Williams says. “After that, I started getting claustrophobic. I started getting hot on my back. And as I got hot on my back, I started freaking out.”
The doctors monitoring the MRI had wandered away for a moment. So, following a fit of panic, Williams began the unlikely process of squeezing out of the machine.
“By the time they came [back],” he laughs, “I was halfway out.”
Williams will enter the draft under plenty of scrutiny: Teams could knock him for his size, or his lack of college production, or his divisive decision to declare early, and avoid picking him. For a tailback once on the path to becoming the Next Big Thing, he will now have to fight to prove he belongs, to break out of the one-trick-pony box he has been crammed into, and he harbors no illusions otherwise.
But that’s the thing. From his crib to the combine, Williams has found himself in plenty of tough situations before. He has a knack for maneuvering his way out.