SPARTANBURG — At practice Thursday Jimmy Clausen throws a low line drive and Carolina Panthers tight end Brandon Williams reaches almost to the ground and plucks it out of the air. Williams makes the catch look simple but when a few spectators try to replicate it they stop before they hurt themselves.
Asked Friday about the catch, Williams praises Clausen’s throw.
Asked again, he merely smiles.
You’re not going to brag, are you?
“Nah,” he says.
Williams, 25, is a project. But, man, is he a compelling project.
He’s 6-foot-5, weighs 253 pounds, runs a 4.5 40 and the Panthers measured his body fat at 3.5 percent. To put that in perspective, a brick has body fat of about 4 percent.
“He shows power and strength at the point of attack and he’s learning how to be an efficient blocker,” says Panthers coach Ron Rivera. “As far as receiving goes he’s learning to run the routes, he’s got tremendous speed and he’s learning to use it. He’s a very raw football player and with the situation he’s in now he’s getting a lot of reps. He’s kind of had to learn on the run and he’s handling it pretty good.”
When the Panthers released tight end Nelson Rosario on Tuesday, Williams presumably benefited.
“It’s really too early to tell,” says tight ends coach Pete Hoener. “There are opportunities for a lot of guys. (Brandon) is a guy that didn’t play football his last year in college. He has to learn the position, learn the techniques, learn some of the art of route running again so he’s in that raw stage right now.
“But he’s progressed very well so we just have to be patient and see how he progresses through the rest of camp.”
Williams grew up a basketball player in Blue Island, Ill. His senior year of high school he played football, primarily defensive end. He went to Joliet (Ill.) Junior College and redshirted as a freshman. Coaches tried him at tight end on the scout team. As a sophomore Williams was a junior college All-American.
He transferred to Oregon where he played with Panthers rookie running back Kenjon Barner, who has made as many did-you-see-that plays in camp as anybody on the roster.
Can you run with Barner?
“I feel like I can but he’ll tell you different,” Williams says.
Williams played one season at Oregon and broke his hand in his second game. Then, in a drill, he suffered a back injury and was diagnosed with a narrow spinal canal complicated by a bulging disc. Oregon shut him down. He graduated with a degree in sociology.
Williams moved to Portland to become a police officer and was playing basketball when the coach at Portland Bible College asked him to play for him. In 2012 Williams did. He says he loved to go to the basket and dunk.
How high you jump?
“I have a picture,” says Williams.
How convenient. Where’s the picture of Thursday’s catch?
Williams pulls out his cell phone and there he is, dunking in a game for Portland Bible College, his elbow even with the rim.
Williams’ girlfriend worked at a gym owned by Sam Adams, the longtime former NFL defensive lineman. Adams introduced Williams to his agent, Angelo Wright. Wright scheduled an MRI and Williams was tested by NFL doctors and cleared to play.
Williams tried out at a regional combine in Seattle and advanced to the super combine in Dallas. The Panthers invited him to try out for them and to be examined by their doctors. They signed him April 29.
He knows he’s behind. So he asks questions and tries to imitate the work of veteran tight ends Greg Olsen and Ben Hartsock and tight end-fullback Richie Brockel.
“He’s the modern day tight end,” says Hoener. “He’s very strong and he has some explosion. And he’s very fast. So he’s a guy that can stretch the field as well as probably be a pretty good blocker as he develops.”
After practice Thursday, Friday and most other days, Williams works with equipment assistant Greg Almond. They use a drill Williams saw Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald do on TV.
They stand 10 yards apart and Almond fires a series of passes that Williams catches in front of him, then on his left, then on his right, then behind him and then over his shoulder.
Do you notice?
“Oh, yeah,” Hoener says. “I know everything he does.”
So he saw the catch.