SPARTANBURG, S.C. – College basketball analyst Dick Vitale used to refer to some players as members of the All-Airport Team, meaning they looked the part of a superstar walking through the airport but had a first-class seat on the bench come game time.
Tight end Brandon Williams, a former college basketball player, looks like a superstar based on his physique, even in the eyes of his teammates. While Williams fully understands why he didn't get a lot of "PT" (playing time) last season, he's doing everything possible to get in the game.
"Last year I was way behind, having been out of football for two years. So having a year of experience has really helped me develop," Williams said. "Whatever the coaches want me to do, I'm willing to do it. I just try to go in every day with an open mind and listen to what they say and work on everything they want me to work on."
Williams has lots to work on, but he also has lots to work with. Nicknamed "Swoll Bones" (as in "swollen") by quarterback Cam Newton in deference to his chiseled muscles, Williams has potential written all over him. Because of that, he remained on the 53-man roster all of last season despite seeing very limited playing time and catching zero passes in nine games.
The Panthers discovered Williams at the fledgling NFL Regional Scouting Combine in the spring of 2013. He hadn't played football since 2010 because of a spinal injury that ended his career at Oregon after just one season and two catches. He had last been seen playing some pretty good basketball at Portland Bible College.
Williams spent a lot of time in Charlotte this past offseason training with starting tight end Greg Olsen, who counts himself among Williams' supporters.
"Brandon has come as far as anybody when you consider where he was a year ago as a guy at a regional combine," Olsen said. "He gets brought in to see what he's all about and to make the active roster as a rookie and now here we are a year later – just to see the growth he's made, it's a testament to the hard work he's put in.
"He's light years ahead of where he has been. He's obviously very physically gifted, and as things start to slow down for him and piece together, I think he has a chance to have a lot of success."
Physically, Williams is in the mold of Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas, who played one year of college football after starring on the basketball court and caught one pass over his first two NFL seasons before exploding for 65 last season. Or a guy like Ladarius Green comes to mind, a third-year tight end for the San Diego Chargers who could be poised for a big year after catching just four passes as a rookie then 17 last season while learning behind Antonio Gates.
On the other hand, Thomas and Green were both fourth-round draft picks. The year Williams was eligible for the draft, he thought his football career was over because of a narrow spinal column and bulging disk in his back.
"I had to become more aware of football again, more aware of my surroundings," Williams said. "My fundamentals have gotten better – route running as well. My footwork is a lot better. Last year I was pretty lost with footwork, just kind of coasting off athletic ability. This year I'm using footwork that I've learned from Coach Pete (Hoener) and putting it together with my athletic ability."
Williams has soft hands and a hard body, equally enjoying catching the ball and catching a defender off-guard with a bruising block. He's in a good situation, in a position group led by Olsen on an offense looking to get a second tight end involved in the passing game.
At the same time, Williams still has to be considered a project. But unlike some All-Airport Team players in the past, he still has a chance to become a "PTPer" ("primetime performer" for the uninitiated.)