Improved speed, techniques raise WR's stock

From the sounds of his voice, Mike Williams will enter the NFL with an edge, an attitude he hopes will compensate for his lost year in 2004.

In the "Rocky" movies, that edge was called the "Eye of the Tiger." Some might liken the sound to being angry, but that would be a mischaracterization. Missing a year of football hurt. Like most great athletes, Williams, the former USC receiver who tried and failed to turn pro after two college seasons, loves the regimens of his football days. Fate and an untimely decision temporarily took that away from him.

On the flip side, there is Braylon Edwards of Michigan. Last year, he elected to stay in school for his senior year instead of leaving early and entering the most competitive receiver draft in NFL history. Nothing changed for Edwards. His college days were packed. His life stayed on a roll – so much so that this spring, Edwards, competing against Williams, could be the top receiver selected in the draft on April 23.

"We had different situations," Williams said of Edwards' decision to stay in school. "It helped him, obviously. He had a great year. He was the guy in college, and he benefited from a great year. I left school, and it ended up costing me. "

On April 23, Williams gets a fresh start, and there is no doubt in his mind he will make the best of it. Williams will be the first or second receiver selected. Regardless, his plan is to be the best. Why? Because he's talented and he has had more time than anyone other than Maurice Clarett to think about what it means to enter the NFL.

As a result of the Clarett lawsuit pressing the NFL to allow college players who are less than three years out of high school to turn pro, Williams decided to turn pro. He realized the danger. Like going across the middle of the field to catch a crossing pattern against a hard-hitting strong safety, Williams gambled on turning pro early.

Clarett lost, and Williams equally became a victim. The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a district court's ruling for Clarett and closed Williams' door to the NFL. Williams scrambled. Unlike Clarett, he burned no bridges. His coach, Pete Carroll, and his USC teammates, all wanted him back.

Williams registered at USC to take classes, but the NCAA voted he no longer had college eligibility because he had hired an agent. At the age of 20, for the first time in his life, Williams was a player without a sport, putting him unexpectedly at a career crossroads.

He didn't get angry; he got focused. Having too much time on his hands, Williams started working toward the 2005 draft. Though he missed a year of football, Williams decided to turn his misfortunes into an edge he could use to make him a better player.

"I think the experience has made me a lot sharper toward football," Williams said. "It's helped me in how I carry myself and what's important to me. Physically, there [are] so many things I didn't know, so many things that I didn't have last year."

Time on an athlete's hands can be a dangerous thing. Look at some of the offseason headlines. Football players -- as well as other athletes -- throughout the country get in trouble during the offseason because they have so much time on their hands. They hang around the wrong crowds. However, Williams had an edge on his peers.

Instead of a posse, Williams had a core of close friends who supported him rather than distracted him. As a sophomore in high school, he lived in the home of a Tampa, Fla., CPA who is CEO of the Florida Spinal Institute. Jack McCurdy and his wife, Kathy, a practicing attorney, made sure Williams had the right people around him during his high school and college years. He had the support of his maternal grandmother, Gertrude Lawson.

"I never got in trouble, and I don't plan on getting in trouble," Williams said. "When you have a lot of time on your hands, things can happen and [you] get in trouble. I had a good core group that made sure they were pushing me."

Being deprived of his USC teammates, Williams grew closer to his family and friends in the Tampa area. In mid-October, he left Los Angeles and began preparing himself for the 2005 season.

The first stop was Duluth, Ga., where he trained with Chip Smith of Competitive Edge Sports to improve his speed. Nature blessed him with a 6-foot-5, 229-pound body to physically punish cornerbacks. Missing was the great speed. Smith pushed Williams to his fastest. Though his 4.55 speed might not be considered explosive, Williams is fast enough to merit top-five consideration in the draft.

While in the Georgia area, Williams worked on his catching on the JUGS machine and with former Georgia quarterback David Green.

Part 2 of the program is still in progress, and it could end up being the advantage that will help him most in the pros. Williams has spent more time on his route running. His daily training involves four hours of workouts for conditioning and route running. Since last fall, he has worked in Boca Raton, Fla., with former Vikings great Cris Carter.

The more Williams worked with Carter, the more the young player realized the problems of going into the NFL too early. It's the things you don't know that can hurt you. Williams might have won last year if Clarett had been successful in his lawsuit, but it might have cost him on the field.

"Trying to go in last year's draft would have cost me throughout the season," Williams said. "I've worked on route running and separation. That's something the smarter players do, the fundamentals. That's what I learned during this year off. I wouldn't have learned that last year because I would have been learning on the go. Working with Cris Carter and having the chance to be side by side watching a Hall of Famer work out helped. I was able to emulate what he's doing. It helped me out when I got to my workouts. Now, my workouts are more smooth. I have body control that I wouldn't have had last year. I'm a lot better prepared."

Mock drafts are one thing, but the ratings end once the season begins. Before last year's draft, a knock on Michael Clayton was that he lacked great speed. However, he went 15th overall to the Bucs and broke various franchise receiving marks. Clayton's speed and Williams' are similar, but Williams is the bigger, more imposing threat. At USC, Williams was considered a beast to those cornerbacks he went against in the Pac-10.

Mentally, Williams has moved past the mock drafts and the ratings. He knows he will be a top-10 pick. Either he or Edwards will be the first receiver taken. What Williams is focusing on is his performance in the NFL.

"It's fun to listen to the mock drafts," Williams said. "Somebody has you here one day and then puts you here and puts you there the next day. It can be entertaining at times, but I don't get caught up in all that stuff. I try to take care of everything that's in my control."

This spring, there is no uncertainty for Williams. He's draft eligible with no lawsuits pending. He won't be in New York for the draft, though, instead opting to be with the family and friends who supported him in Tampa through his roller-coaster ride in 2004.

Williams enters the league with an edge. After April 23, time will be on his side.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.