No more all-Oneida
D.J. Williams understood the term. And no one is more aware of his qualifications for it than the Green Bay Packers’ third-year tight end.
Back when the team held all of its offseason practices on Clarke Hinkle Field – the practice field in front of the Don Hutson Center, across Oneida Street from Lambeau Field – veterans used to anoint those players who impressed in offseason practices with the derisive honor of making the all-Oneida team. They were the players who looked All-Pro in helmets and shorts but were seldom heard from when the pads went on and games began.
This offseason, with the renovated Ray Nitschke Field being prepped for training camp, the Packers’ organized team activity practices and minicamp work – at least, when weather permitted – were back on Hinkle Field. That’s where Tuesday’s practice is scheduled to be, as the team’s final week of OTAs draws to a close and the players scatter until training camp in late July.
When they return, Williams hopes to parlay a strong offseason into a strong camp and then be a consistent contributor in the regular season – something he’s failed to do in his first two NFL seasons.
“The biggest thing is once I put my foot on the gas, just keep it on there and not stop. I need to become a more physical football player, I need to become a little bit more athletic on the field,” Williams explained during a break in OTAs. “During the year, once the body starts breaking down, you have to rely on every piece of it to keep it going. I think that’s where I fell off a lot last year.
“I’m looking at the bigger picture this year and realizing it’s not how well you do in practice, it’s not how great you do in practice. It’s how great you do in the game, and I need to put two and two together.”
Williams, a 2011 fifth-round pick from Arkansas who won the Mackey Award as the nation’s top college tight end as a senior, has played in 13 games in each of his two regular seasons. He was phenomenal in the first two weeks of training camp last summer, but after playing only 104 snaps on offense as a rookie, he was on the field for just 262 of a possible 1,256 last year. He caught seven passes for 57 yards – three of those receptions for 20 yards came against Tennessee in the team’s Dec. 23 blowout victory – and he was inactive four times: As a healthy scratch against New Orleans on Sept. 30, sidelined by a hamstring injury Oct. 14 at Houston, a healthy scratch at Chicago on Dec. 16 and a healthy scratch in the season-ending NFC Divisional Playoff loss at San Francisco on Jan. 12.
“My confidence is good. I didn’t think for a second, ‘Oh, they made a good decision on this one.’ I completely believe I can play – and everyone in this locker room is in that same boat,” Williams said of sitting out those games. “Me being competitive, when I feel like I could be doing a lot more, it’s not getting mad about the coaches’ decision, it all comes down to me and what I’m doing. It’s more me being hard on myself and needing to push myself more. So my key is to make sure I’m not in that position again. If it happens, it’s nothing for me to get upset about at anyone else but myself.”
Some of Williams’ problems can be traced to nagging injuries. His promising training camp was derailed by back and foot injuries, and a pulled hamstring suffered in practice in early October was also an issue. In an effort to avoid such issues, Williams said he’s taken up yoga and Pilates.
“I think the key, at least from my experience with D.J., is keeping him healthy – keeping him in a position where he can go out each and every week and play at 100 percent,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “If he gets nicked up, it seemed like last year he missed time and preparation, and it affects his production.”
Coaches love to talk about how important it is for players to make an appreciable jump from Year 1 to Year 2, but for Williams, Year 3 is crucial. The Packers currently have seven tight ends on the roster, including him: Starter Jermichael Finley, holdovers Williams, Andrew Quarless, Ryan Taylor and Brandon Bostick, veteran free-agent pickup Matthew Mulligan and undrafted rookie Jake Stoneburner. Even with the free-agent departure of Tom Crabtree, who signed with Tampa Bay, Williams’ roster spot is hardly guaranteed. With Quarless finally healthy after missing last season with a December 2011 knee injury and Mulligan’s blocking ability, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Williams must improve as an all-around tight end and continue to get better as a special teams contributor.
“That’s what I want to do. I want to be just as good at both,” said Williams, who saw some of his highest snap counts while serving as a quasi-fullback when John Kuhn was sidelined for two weeks midway through the season. “You’ve got your players who are better at one thing than the other. My whole niche since I started playing in high school is being able to do both, and that’s what I feel like they brought me here for.
“We have seven tight ends on the roster right now. It’s unbelievable. I feel like if they can find a guy who can do both exceptionally well, that’ll benefit that player and the team. To play this game, your body has to be able to perform, so I’m doing everything I can this offseason to be in a whole lot better shape, be faster. Because I feel like when it comes to the mental aspect of the game, I have a hold on it. I just want to be able to put it together with the athletic ability.”
And put it together when it matters most.
“It’s the carryover,” Williams said. “It’s all good at this time of year, but when it’s Sunday night and the lights are on, that’s when it all counts.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.