Freshman sensation only scratched the surface in 2002

LOS ANGELES -- Behind every great player, there always seems to be The Story. It often happens long before the kid has made it big. And it always is about, well, it. You know, that mystical quality that separates great from merely good.

Two years ago, Pete Carroll witnessed one of Mike Williams' "it" moments when the super-sized wideout did something that would show the USC coach more than he could ever learn from a stat sheet or a stopwatch.

Carroll gets a sparkle in his eye as he summons up the memory about just marveling when he saw the 6-foot-5 receiver snatch a ball out of the air, maneuver around defenders and then, with stunning improvisational skills, lateral the ball behind his head to a teammate in stride.

It was part Globetrotter, part Deion, part Jamelle Holieway. How it transpired Williams can't explain. But Carroll, a guy who had spent decades around the NFL, knew a playmaker when he saw one.

Still, even the ultra-enthusiastic Carroll probably wouldn't have imagined that Williams could've been as good as he was in his first season in Troy, catching an astounding 81 passes for 1,265 yards and 14 touchdowns. The receiving yards set an NCAA freshman record, while the TD mark tied Florida's Jabar Gaffney's NCAA freshman record.

Not bad for a guy who only had 38 receptions in his senior year at Plant High School in Tampa, Fla. or for someone who really is still just learning how to be a receiver. "Special," says Carroll, who knows a thing or two about special having coached Jerry Rice and a young Terrell Owens.

Oh, and in case you're wondering how such a talent was able to get away from the Florida schools, that story also has a magical little twist too. Williams was gonna be a Gator, but when Steve Spurrier left for the NFL, new Gator coach Ron Zook told Williams he might like him more as a safety. Other schools hinted at tight end. No deal. Then, USC got wise to Williams thanks to Trojan receivers coach Lane Kiffin. See, Kiffin's the son of Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and also the brother-in-law of Williams' high school quarterback.

Relying on sheer athleticism and his rebounder's instincts Williams overwhelmed smaller DBs last fall. His ability to carve out space-and in many cases-literally bull his way to the ball evokes memories of Michael Irvin. "Mike just has a great feel for the game," says Keary Colbert, USC's other stud receiver, who also topped the 1000-yard mark in '02. "He has that initial quickness and really knows how to use his body."

Rival defensive coordinators say he is a nightmare to prepare for because of his attacking style. "He had 14 touchdown catches-as a freshman!" raves Washington D-coordinator Phil Snow. "You just don't do that. He's going to be special."

Actually, he already is. Sure, Williams doesn't have Heisman QB Carson Palmer throwing to him any more -- now it's unproven 6-5 sophomore Matt Leinart -- but don't kid yourself Williams was no product of the system. He deserves to rank among the other great receivers around the country with Oklahoma State's Rashaun Woods, Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald and his two namesakes, Reggie Williams from Washington and Roy Williams from Texas.

Truth is, because all three Williams boys are 6-4 or taller and have pretty sturdy frames to go with gaudy stats, they tend to get lumped together. But they are pretty unique talents. According to opposing coaches and players who faced them, Roy is the slickest with the softest hands, Reggie is the strongest and most polished and Mike is the biggest and most physical -- and the one who probably has the most room for improvement.

But the kid from USC is working on that. He has bulked up 15 pounds to 230 and has worked hard to refine his route running. "When I got here, I just ran routes," Williams says. "I didn't put emphasis on being low or foot placement. I really came in a step behind. Coach Carroll was on me everyday."

Carroll says Williams is a quick study. "He's a natural route runner," he says. "He has the natural instincts for change of direction and releases."

Credit Williams's basketball background for some of that. Back home in Florida his rep was as big for hoops as it was for catching passes. Basketball, he says, taught him timing and body placement. He averaged 15 ppg and 11 rpg in his senior year Tampa's Plant High. He also played on the powerful Tallahassee Wildcats AAU basketball squad, where he was a teammate of another guy who had a huge rookie season last year, Phoenix Sun Amare Stoudemire.

Williams was getting recruited for basketball, but realized that 6-5 basketball players are pretty common. "But," Williams points out, "in football 6-5 wide receivers are in. Guys like Randy Moss and Charles Rogers are the playmakers."

Maybe the biggest improvement you'll see in Williams this year won't show up in the stats. Carroll has harped on him to improve as a blocker and says Williams probably graded out to C-minus last season. "Before, he wasn't consistent at it," says Carroll, "and that's something that had to change because you never know when a play's gonna break. But he really has impressed me by working so hard at it and I like the competitiveness he's shown. He's battling everyday.

"He's had a great camp and he really has matured."

Scary thought.

Bruce Feldman covers college football for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at bruce.feldman@espnmag.com.