Rookie WR Jacquay Nunnally hopes to make the same sort of impression in 2001 that Karl Williams made in 1996
Not long ago, we caught up with Karl Williams, the veteran receiver preparing to enter his sixth training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Williams was finishing a summer workout, one of a few dozen Bucs still training in Tampa in the last few weeks before camp.
Williams, you might think, would feel secure this summer, far removed from that 1996 camp to which he first reported as a long shot rookie free agent.
Though he's one catch shy of 100 on his career, and though he's perhaps the most successful punt returner in team history, Williams approaches each August as if the odds are stacked against him once again.
As such, he is a once and future example for the new crop of Karl Williamses, the undrafted, unproven and largely unknown group of free agent wide receivers about to head into Tampa Bay's Training Camp 2001.
We're talking about Margin Hooks, Khori Ivy, Robert Kilow, Jacquay Nunnally, Frank Rice and Alex Willis (Eddie Hardaway, a first-year player, is in roughly the same situation). Will we be talking about them five years from now, as we are about Williams?
We won't compare them or try to separate one or two from the pack. They'll try to do that themselves, beginning in just a few short weeks on July 29. Many, like Williams, are in town trying to reach peak physical condition for camp. That's right in line with the advice Williams would give them as they attempt to duplicate his 1996 feat.
"I always tell them, 'Try not to think about what can happen,'" he explained. "The only thing they can control is what they do on the field. That's the way you have to look at it. It's a crazy game and a lot of things happen for different reasons. Whatever happens, if you feel like you gave all that you could give, you should walk away happy."
Good advice, Karl, if ended with some grim-sounding words. No one wants to walk away at the end of August. Hooks would like to hange around a bit, Ivy hopes for a chance to grow on people, Rice would like to work up to simmer, Nunnally … well, you get the idea.
For them, the good news is that the slate is clean. Though each has participated in roughly 20 full practices already, nothing is on the record yet. Offseason mini-camps and voluntary workouts are intended to teach, not evaluate. Routes mangled or balls dropped in May can now be forgotten.
Besides, new miscues will take their places. As supremely talented as all of these players are, some balls will go through fingers and some assignments will be missed. According to Williams, how one reacts to a mistake is important. Rather than exaggerated self-flagellation, coaches want to see a player suck it up and jump right back into action. Not that it's easy or comforting.
"Even today, I worry when I drop a pass," he admitted. "It's weird, because a lot of times you can't believe you dropped it. I mean, nobody's perfect, but you know that when you do drop a pass, you could have made that catch or that play on any given day. You get down on yourself, but you have to bounce right back and get ready for the next play."
Despite the complete lack of fanfare preceding him, Williams quickly stuck out in that first training camp in '96. Maybe he didn't drop a pass that summer at the University of Tampa or during the four preseason games. He thinks, however, that he probably did.
On the other hand, he knows he did enough right to impress the coaches. He made the most of his opportunities and the least out of his mistakes.
"I worried, but not too much," said Williams. "It's just one of those things, a quick second where you think back and remember yourself making that same play the day before. You just get in the huddle and hope that the coaches call that play again. You want them to have enough confidence to go back to you."
Williams stole a place on a receiving corps that was in flux during Head Coach Tony Dungy's first season at the helm. Lawrence Dawsey was moving on and Alvin Harper was still trying, unsuccessfully, to fit in. Journeyman Robb Thomas was counted on heavily. The team's leading receiver was a fullback, Mike Alstott, and tight ends Jackie Harris and Dave Moore were primary targets.
The situation for this year's deep crop of free agent receivers may not be as wide open. While it certainly plays in their favor that there were no receivers among the team's nine draft picks in April, it's also true that virtually all of last year's passcatchers are back and still in their primes. With the additional development of first-year player Frank Murphy, it's conceivable that the competition in camp will be aimed mostly at practice-squad spots.
But that's not necessarily the case, as Williams can attest. There may be a ball or two dropped this August, but then again there might be a job or two won.