INDIANAPOLIS -- The wait for Mike Williams must have been agonizing. A year ago the former USC receiving star contemplated whether to turn pro.
Reacting to the Maurice Clarett lawsuit, the NFL opened a short window for underclassmen to submit applications to turn pro. Williams submitted. He prepared. Then he waited. The wait hurt. The courts ruled against Clarett and killed Williams' chances to turn pro. Then the NCAA added the double whammy by not allowing him to return to Southern California.
"When it first happened, I couldn't be there with the guys. Of course, that was a difficult time," Williams said of the final blow to his tough 2004 year. "At the same time, those are my guys. Those are some of my best friends on that team. I came to SC because of guys like Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson, who told me that they believe in the program. So, to sit back and watch those guys do well, win a national championship and celebrate -- it's just like being an alumnus, watching your team do well."
Williams has arrived in Indianapolis for the scouting combine to try to reestablish his draft stock. By no design of his own, Williams has distanced himself from Clarett, who opened a door to the NFL that slammed in his face and cost him a year of football. Williams wasn't bitter; this was an education in life. He missed a year of college life and fun. He missed a big paycheck in the NFL last season.
For Williams, everything has been about the wait, and now, his wait is over. He's about to become part of the NFL, and it's up to him to promote enough of a workout report to go as high as he can in the first round. He's had a year to reflect on his strange ride in 2004.
His situation wasn't the same as Clarett's in the sense that Williams tried to come into the NFL last year through an invitation, not a lawsuit. Though it made him a victim, his was a self-inflicted rule. Several friends and NFL advisers told Williams that if Clarett lost the lawsuit against the NFL, he could lose a year of football. He still took the risk.
Unlike Clarett, Williams doesn't have any off-the-field baggage. He even reached out to Clarett during the offseason to see if he could help the former Ohio State running back, who was training in California.
"I talked to Maurice a couple of times when things had first happened," Williams said. "I basically asked him, I said, 'If you need somebody to work out with, if you need some things, I'll be in California. We can work out together,' whatever. But he was doing his own thing, and I respected that. But really, I've really tried hard to distance myself from his situation because we're kind of at different ends of the spectrum. But in the same token, I think we're always going to be linked together. We both understood that, but I definitely don't see him as the reason why I wasn't able to be in the draft last year. It's nothing personal against him, never has been. I just worry about maintaining my focus and my image, and I take care of my business."
Unfortunately, Williams won't be able to completely win over NFL scouts this weekend because he decided to hold his workout in Tampa on March 10. That didn't go over particularly well with NFL teams. His thought is that the workout is close enough to the combine that he wanted his own day.
What's left to be seen is if the decision not to work out will turn off teams.
"When the coaches asked me this, the GMs asked me this, I've been through a lot in this past year with the NFL and the NCAA," Williams said. "The combine, it's a stage, but I don't think it's my personal stage. I think I owe it to myself to give me a day where it's my day and it's all about me, and I can go out and be comfortable in my surroundings and my area and perform. That's why I'm not going to do it."
That statement might not go over very well. This isn't supposed to be about Williams. Scouts have to rework their schedules to see his individual workout at the expense of others going on at the same time. If he runs a bad time or has a bad workout, his stock could drop out of the top 10.
But if he wows them in the workout, all will be forgiven. Teams still have tapes of how dominating Williams was at USC. To cornerbacks, he was a beast, a big, physical, playmaking receiver. The only knock against him is his speed.
Williams believes he's resolved those issues over the past year.
"I'm not going to tell you how fast I run, but there's a guy that I train with -- his name is Vincent Fuller," Williams said. "He played at Virginia Tech, so if you guys have any idea how fast he is, I beat him twice. I ran way below 4.5 seconds. I'm willing to bet the farm it will be a legit under 4.45. Legit."
If Williams can back up his words, he will secure his spot in the top 10 and maybe the top five in the draft. He wasn't able to run that fast a year ago and the consensus was he was going to be drafted either ninth by Jacksonville or 15th by Tampa Bay. When Williams was scratched from the draft, both teams ended up taking wide receivers, Reggie Williams by the Jaguars and Michael Clayton by the Bucs.
Williams admits his year of waiting had some low moments.
"There's probably 20 minutes of last year that I really was down, that I really felt like I had the world on my shoulders," Williams said. "I turned to my family and I turned to the Lord -- but I definitely turned to my family and my friends -- and I'm blessed to have a really good support group of people that really care about me, really care about my best interests.
"When I didn't know if I was going to get back in school or not ... I was getting calls from coaches at SC, wondering how I was doing, how I was holding up, making sure I was OK, making sure (if) I need anything. As soon as they found out I couldn't get back into school, the phone stopped ringing. And I have no problem with that. But I was definitely blessed with a family that was there for me the whole time.
"My mom called me last night and she was asking me about how it's going. Emotionally, I'm ready to go. I definitely put myself in this situation physically and mentally, and my work ethic will hopefully turn out better this year than possibly last year."
Williams checked into Indianapolis weighing 228 pounds, four pounds more than a week ago. Last year, he tried to trim himself to 216, but that was too light. He didn't feel as physical as he could be, so he put back some weight, figuring that 224 might be his right weight.
By March 10, Williams' weight will be right. He'll try to run his best time, and then just wait to see the results in April's draft. At least this time, he will have a result. No court will overturn his entry into the NFL.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.