WVU football: Williams is sharp’ and ready for return
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - When West Virginia practiced last Wednesday, it did so in full pads for the first time, and the Mountaineers commemorated the occasion with the Oklahoma drill.
A quarterback lines up in front of a running back and they're behind an offensive player who will block a defensive player so that the ball carrier can get past. It's particularly popular among the players early in camp when the contact that had been prohibited throughout the opening days is suddenly encouraged.
On that day, cornerback Avery Williams took a turn against receiver Kevin White. Then he took one against receiver Devonte Mathis. It was uneventful, but it was an enormous moment for Williams, even if the team trainer had to tell him about it after practice.
On Aug. 7, 2012, Williams was injured in an Oklahoma drill. He missed all of last season.
"I went up against Dante Campbell," Williams remembered Tuesday. "It was just a head-on collision."
It's not that easy against Campbell, who is 6-foot-4 and 215 points and earned playing time early last season in part because of the way he blocked in these drills. He was good at it and he knew it.
"He called out one of the defensive backs," Williams said. "Maybe he called out a corner with us being smaller, but one of our corners, I think Pat Miller, was talking a lot of smack. They got into it and Dante called one of us out. Nobody came out so I stepped up."
They lined up across from one another and ran into one another and, as Williams remembers it, his facemask his Campbell in the chest.
"I did good, but at the end of the day, his weight took over," Williams said.
His head rocked back sharply and Williams felt an unusual pressure on the back of his neck. A few days later, we visited the team's medical staff to complain about the crick in his neck that hadn't gone away. He learned that the collision with Campbell had probably aggravated an injury he likely had for a while.
Discs in his vertebrae had slipped. Even though there wasn't extreme pain and that Williams would be able to crane and swivel his neck without any trouble just a few days after the diagnosis, surgery was recommended.
"I thought it was just a normal injury, and I don't ever think too negatively," Williams said. "They basically said I could play, but the chances of reinjuring it were really high."
Surgery would give Williams a permanent fix, but it meant no football in 2012. That was the first time Williams hurt.
"Especially coming back from the year before and the Orange Bowl," he said. "Sitting on the sideline, seeing what the defense was going through the first year in the Big 12, knowing there wasn't anything I could do about it, and not just the defense, but the entire team, it was hard knowing I couldn't be a part of it. Not to say I would have been able to fix it, but it just hurt to have to watch like that."
Williams, now a redshirt sophomore from Washington, D.C., had the surgery in Chicago and wore a soft neck brace for a few days.
"Rehab was cool," he said. "No pain, no nothing. Just little exercises to strengthen the neck. Nothing serious."
His neck is stronger, which helps with stability, but the extra 2 inches necessitate a new line of dress shirts.
"It could have been worse," he said. "I told myself when I had the surgery and when I was rehabbing, 'I'm not going to let this break me.' Even in the spring, I was like, 'I'm not going to be scared to hit. I just got a real expensive surgery. I'm going to test it out and see what it's like.'"
He was advised against that and he wasn't allowed to hit hard or tackle throughout the 15 spring practices. Williams did some light contact, what the Mountaineers like to call "thumping," and the rest of the drills that weren't a danger to his recovery.
That recovery came to an end last week when he went 1-on-1 against White and Mathis, an occasion Williams wasn't aware of until trainer Dave Kerns congratulated Williams afterward on his one-year anniversary.
"I was always really thinking about what the pro scouts would think," Williams said. "That's honestly what I thought about, besides the team and being healthy to help my teammates. In the long run, everyone who plays college football wants to be in the league.
"What I was thinking was, 'Will this ruin my chances with pro scouts?' A neck injury is a serious thing. But in my case, it was nothing too major. It's really almost like nothing ever happened."
He's thus far backed up his words with his actions. He's one of just six healthy cornerbacks in practice and Williams had gravitated toward the top of the depth chart late last week. He was enjoying first-team reps until "a bad day" Saturday.
White and sophomore K.J. Myers beat Williams on fade routes.
"My technique wasn't right, which is what ticked the coaches off," Williams said. "It wasn't that they caught the passes. It was more about the technique I used. I was supposed to be first to the ball, but my mind was somewhere else at the time."
Granted, White is the 6-3 junior college transfer who has played arguably better than any other receiver so far, while Myers is 6-2 and 200 pounds and tracking toward the second starting outside spot opposite White. Williams is 5-11 and 185 pounds and, well, coming off a major operation.
"I'm sharp and ready to go," he said. "Not to brag or nothing, but some people, it just comes natural. Some people have got to work on it. Not to brag, but I don't think there's too much rust."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.