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Husky Hard Knocks: Nick Williams

Here is part two of our new series that will highlight the seven former Huskies about to enter their first NFL training camps this summer. Each day we’ll evaluate a single player’s individual prospects, likely fit with their new team and position competition. Today, we continue with wide receiver/returner Nick Williams, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Washington Redskins.

One steamy afternoon last September in D.C., the Washington Redskins were putting the final polish on their game plans for a week two matchup with the St. Louis Rams. The ‘Skins had just started their season 1-0 after outgunning the New Orleans Saints in a shoot-out the previous Sunday, 40-32. The Rams currently posed a different challenge, however, boasting a stronger running game and more rugged defense.

Meanwhile, just 11 and a half miles away, a tenacious young playmaker was unknowingly working his way into the Redskins’ future plans. Midway through the second quarter of a scoreless UConn/Maryland contest, Nick Williams stared skyward and hauled in a perfectly average punt from Nick Renfro.

Then, he took off in exceptional fashion.

Zigzagging his way upfield, Williams torched the Terrapins for 58 yards before coasting into the end zone for six points. The senior captain invigorated his team and laid the groundwork for a 24-21 Husky victory that day over old coach Randy Edsall. His ability to create those plays has since laid the groundwork for a potential career as an NFL player, which will soon begin just down the road at Redskins Park.

A native of East Windsor, N.J., Nick Williams has been the headliner of the successful UConn special teams units in recent years. After this past season, Williams stood as the only Husky ever to return two kicks and a pair of punts for touchdowns over a career. When head coach Paul Pasqualoni was hired in 2011, Williams was granted a greater offensive role as the team’s slot receiver. Since then, he accumulated 41 catches, 570 yards and a couple of touchdowns.

While Pasqualoni often referred to Williams as a “Wes Welker type”, the Redskin rookie has a ways to go before enjoying any similar success his fellow undrafted free agent currently benefits from. Measuring in at around 5’ 9” 184 lbs., he will be undersized for any position he plays and often subject to physical bullying by his opposition. Yet, there’s a reason the four-year letterwinner left school as the all-time leader in kickoff return yards.

When in the open field, Williams plays with above average quickness and a keen ability to consistently gain maximal yardage. This knack stems from excellent vision, tenacity and toughness, which he sometimes used to fight for and win back loose balls at the bottom of pile-ups. While his sample of playing receiver is small, and diluted by playing with struggling teammates, Williams also possesses decent hands and ability to separate in short spaces.

His speed for the next level is average, and he must improve on breaking from press coverage. Due to his split focus at UConn between returning and receiving, Williams must also work further to master many of the smaller nuances of playing out wide. Thanks to all these things, he will simply have to practice harder and learn faster than almost everybody this pre-season, in order to break in with Washington.

Thankfully for Williams, the Redskins were the epitome of ordinary when it came to returning the football last year. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly where he’ll make his money. The team finished 16th in kickoffs, 17th in punts and never returned any kick back for a score. For the immediate future, the Husky hopeful is best-suited returning punts, since he’s more quick than he is fast.

In time, Williams could possibly develop as a slot receiver, especially given that the most popular formations in the league today feature three wideouts, one tight end and one running back. Washington placed him at receiver for many snaps during mandatory team mini-camp and off-season workouts. In fact, he’s made his presence felt already, by converting a simulated, pressure fourth down play in a mini-camp sequence.

The teammates who stand in Williams’ way of making his first NFL team are those who will also be gunning for the returning jobs. Now, the Redskins aren’t exactly stacked with world-beaters at wideout, but don’t expect their top-four receivers to be waving good-bye to the capital anytime soon. Josh Morgan, Santana Moss, Leonard Hankerson and Pierre Garcon should all be lining up week one on Monday night to take on Philadelphia.

However, given his escalating age and thus declining physical abilities, Moss could well lose the punt returning duties he’s currently vying for. The 34-year old stood back deep with Williams and two others in mini-camp, after the release of last year’s returner Brandon Banks. Moss hasn’t returned anything but ill-fitting pants since 2009, when he reeled 11 punts for the Redskins and gained a measly average of 4.7 yards.

The other potential Redskin returners include second-year cornerback Richard Crawford and undrafted rookie wide receiver Skye Dawson. Crawford came out of SMU a year ago and played only in weeks one through five last season, before collecting five tackles and an interception in the team’s final two games. Dawson is from TCU and is known as a speedster, who holds similar aspirations to Williams. He finished top-five in punt and kick returning for the Big 12 conference a year ago and is likely to make the team in that capacity.

Ultimately, Williams will have to prove his worth to the Redskins as both a returner and potential slot receiver to make the 53-man roster on opening night. The competition is small in quantity, but does not lack for talent as Crawford raised some eyebrows last season with the ball in his hands. From this view, should Williams prove his versatility, he’s likely to land on the practice squad.

And he’ll certainly have an opportunity to do so in week one of the pre-season, when Washington takes on Tennessee, who finished fourth to last in covering kicks and in the bottom 12 for covering punts a year ago. Kickoff for that game is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, August 8th.

The Redskins open their training camp on Thursday, July 25th, at the new Bon Secours training center in Richmond, V.A.