MANKATO, Minn. (AP) – The first ball thrown to Troy Williamson on the first live drill of Minnesota’s training camp this week traveled right through his hands.
Sarcastic laughs and comments burst from the bleachers, providing an audible reminder of the challenge Williamson has this season, trying to recreate a trust from Vikings fans and teammates that, yes, he actually can catch.
“The only thing I’ve got to tell them is pretty much just watch the games. I’m pretty sure they’ll do that anyway,” Williamson said.
“We’ll see, and everything else is going to pan out, because I worked too hard during the offseason not to have a good year.”
Terrell Owens led the NFL last season with 17 dropped passes, according to sports researcher Stats, Inc. Williamson was tied for second place with 11 drops.
He sure doesn’t sound worried. In fact, the very next pass after the drop on that first day came to him. That one he caught, along with several others in tight coverage over the balance of practice.
This is exactly what coach Brad Childress and others close to the 24-year-old have been expecting, even if it will probably take a half-dozen touchdowns and a whole bunch of long gains on Sundays this fall for anyone outside the Vikings locker room to lose that skepticism.
“The guy has improved, and I can’t wait for it to manifest itself on the football field,” said Childress, who has been effusive in his praise of Williamson’s offseason work habits.
Now in his third year after Minnesota traded Randy Moss to Oakland and used the seventh overall draft pick to take him out of South Carolina, Williamson estimated he has caught almost 20,000 balls since that miserable 2006 season ended.
He spent hours and hours at Minnesota’s practice facility and even used a machine to feed him passes at home.
“He would be the first one to tell you that it was rock bottom last year, but you can either stay and wallow around it or you can pick yourself up and work to get better, and he decided to do the latter,” Childress said.
Getting married in February helped improve Williamson’s outlook, too, but it was multiple visits he made to Nike headquarters in Oregon at the coach’s suggestion that really boosted his confidence.
There, he worked with sports vision specialists to identify a problem with his eyes, which are 20-20 but with imbalanced strength. That can cause difficulty focusing on a football speeding through the air past all sorts of different colors. Williamson was prescribed exercises for his eyes, which he has performed as ardently as all those thousands of receiving drills. Pleased by his experience, the team even hosted a team of Nike specialists in the spring for vision tests of about 60 players.
Former Vikings receiver Jake Reed overcame some problems with his sight in the 1990s and eventually had four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Williamson has a long way to go before approaching that, though.
Through two seasons, he has only 827 yards and two touchdowns – and none last year. With the untested Tarvaris Jackson destined to be the starting quarterback and the similarly unproven Bobby Wade as the other receiver on top of Minnesota’s depth chart, Williamson won’t have anywhere to hide. He’s being heavily counted on to help open up a passing game that was lifeless last season while the Vikings went 6-10.
“Troy’s done so much work this offseason to get himself mentally and physically ready, so I’m excited to see the player he’ll become this year,” said Wade, who has only two NFL touchdowns himself over four seasons with Chicago and Tennessee.
There was that word again: work. Dedication is an important component of professional success, but it doesn’t equal production. That’s where Williamson must make strides and pull his statistics closer to his incredible speed if he is to be remembered for anything but all those drops.
Often reclusive in his first and second years, Williamson displayed a side of him that was confident, engaging and even boastful when a group of reporters asked him about his status among the fastest players in the league.
“I’m No. 1. You decide who No. 2 is,” Williamson said.
It won’t matter, of course, unless he can hang on to the ball.