GREEN BAY – D.J. Williams got a lot of attention last week, setting the Internet ablaze with his purported cow-wrestling exploits.
In case you missed it, the Green Bay Packers second-year tight end told a group of reporters after practice on Friday that the secret to his offseason training in Arkansas was grappling with cows. Whether he was full of manure or not, it was hard to tell.
It all started innocently enough, with PackerReport.com writer Bill Huber asking Williams what he did to get stronger during the offseason. His response? “Yeah, I was wrestling cows back in Arkansas in the offseason. It works out real good, especially if you get them with a baby calf, (then) they’re really aggressive. That really helped. It started off as cow tipping, but once they start charging you, you have to go to defense mode.”
When asked if he was kidding, Williams replied, “No, I’m serious. If you’re trying to impress a girl, go wrestle a cow. That’s the way to do it. … You just try to not get hurt or die and do whatever you can to stay alive.”
After a few local writers posted Williams’ tale to their websites, he found himself on the front page of the Yahoo.com home page and in sports blogs everywhere. Approached on Saturday about all the attention and asked if he wanted to come clean on the story, Williams laughed heartily and replied, “I guess you’ll have to come down to Arkansas with me next offseason and see for yourself.”
But here’s the thing about Williams’ cow-wrestling buzz: It obscured the reason he was truly newsworthy – he’s off to a great start in camp.
“I think D.J. has had two very good practices,” coach Mike McCarthy said about an hour before Williams held court at his locker about his offseason program. “He’s had a couple of nice catches, big plays in practice. He’s playing with much more balance and strength. D.J. is stronger, more comfortable. He’s doing a lot better job of attacking the middle of the field. I’m excited to see him put the pads on and do the interior stuff.”
And after Williams did put the pads on for Saturday’s practice, McCarthy was still praising him.
“I think D.J is one of those first-year to second-year (guys) – he and Ryan Taylor both – (who) are much stronger, moving better, more athletic,” McCarthy said. “I see it in their balance, not getting knocked off their feet. And it’s probably more that they have a clearer understanding of their role. They’re both very competitive and very much part of our special teams unit. … Those guys have a really hard workload for their particular body type, 250 pounds, for as much running and the number of reps they go through. D.J. is doing an excellent job with that.”
Williams saw extended reps with the No. 1 offense on both Friday and Saturday because starting tight end Jermichael Finley missed both practices after suffering a mild concussion on Thursday, and last season’s No. 2 tight end, Andrew Quarless, has yet to pass his physical. After an off day from practice on Sunday, it’s uncertain whether Finley will be cleared in time for Monday morning’s practice. If he isn’t, Williams is ready to keep the momentum going.
“I feel comfortable with where I am right now but not too comfortable. I understand I’ve got a ways to go,” Williams said. “I just want to establish my role, whatever that may be, whether it’s coming in when J-Mike needs a break or being that utility back that you always hear about and the NFL’s starting to use. I feel comfortable doing it. I’ve been doing it since high school.”
That might be true, but upon his arrival as a fifth-round pick, Williams’ reputation was as a pass catcher. He won the John Mackey Award, given annually to college football’s top tight end, as a senior in 2010, when he caught 54 passes for 627 yards and four touchdowns to finish his career with 152 receptions for 1,855 yards in 51 games (32 starts).
But the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Williams has to be able to do everything as a tight end in the Packers’ offense. In 13 games (and 104 snaps, according to ProFootballFocus.com) last season, he caught just two passes for 13 yards and spent most of his time blocking, especially after Quarless was lost for the season with a knee injury Dec. 4. He also saw more action on special teams.
“It was a big learning experience, a very humbling experience,” Williams said of last season. “You know, everyone here comes from college, where they played a lot, to not being on the field near as much. The way I see it, it’s like freshman year all over again. The good things from it, it puts a little bit of a chip on your shoulder of wanting to get out there and play, because I think everyone on this team should be a competitor, and if you are a competitor, you want to play. And that’s exactly what it did. I’m going to do what it takes this year to be on the field.”
He also must improve on special teams.
“Special teams was new to me (last year). I didn’t do very much at all when I was at Arkansas, and I thought it was people just running down, hair on fire, trying to make a play here or there,” Williams said. “But there’s a lot of technique, there’s a lot of skill, schemes, and it’s a huge part of the game. It was new to me, but now I’m picking it up, understanding it. And, I understand that if you want to play, you’ve got to be able to play special teams.”
So far in camp, Williams has lined up on offense both next to the tackle and in the slot, which is where he lined up on Friday when he made a terrific backward-leaning sideline catch on a throw from Aaron Rodgers against tight coverage.
Williams believes he’s gotten off to a strong start because he’s had a full offseason of organized team activity and minicamp practices and he knows the offensive playbook better – after not seeing it until the first day of camp last year, thanks to the lockout.
But perhaps Williams’ biggest asset is a better rapport with Rodgers.
“I feel like Aaron has a different chemistry with each of his receivers on the field. He knows the personality of each one, how they want to run the routes,” Williams said. “I’ve never seen that in a quarterback. Usually everybody has to go with what works for him, but he goes with what works for everybody else. So I think getting time to figure out how I play as a tight end, it’s worked out great.
“In OTAs, my confidence went up tremendously – being able to go out there and learn the offense, being able to play fast. A lot of people always talk about, ‘He has good hands, good hands.’ The trick to catching the ball is getting open, and having an offseason, that’s a good way to learn how to get open. Catching should be normal. I feel like I worked on that and improved, and I still have a lot more to go.”
The 23-year-old Williams is as charismatic, intelligent and eloquent as any player in the Packers locker room. For the record, when he sat down for an interview on the final day of minicamp in mid-June and was asked about his plans leading up to training camp, he said nothing about cow-tipping.
“I’ll be back in that Arkansas heat, running around and lifting, going up on campus to work out with the football guys,” he said at the time. “It’s going to be a real big offseason for me to stay on track and keep moving. I really want to come back bigger, stronger and faster.”
He did – however he did it. And now, he’s making the most of it.
“I wish the best for Quarless to get healthy as quickly as possible, but it is a chance to get more snaps during practice and build chemistry with the quarterback and offensive line, and (get an) understanding (of) what a defense is going to bring to the table,” Williams said. “It’s a great opportunity and I’m not going to let it go to waste.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.