The fuel for Kasen Williams’ latest, potentially greatest leap comes from his most fateful one.
On Oct. 26, 2013, a cool Saturday night inside Husky Stadium in Seattle, Williams jumped high trying to catch a long pass from Keith Price near their University of Washington bench. As the physical, gifted wide receiver landed to the synthetic grass, his left leg buckled. Then the California cornerback that was defending California landed on Williams’ lower leg.
The 2010 Parade magazine national high school player out of the year out of Skyline in the Seattle suburbs broke the fibula in his lower leg. He also sustained a ligament and bone displacement in his foot. He needed surgeries to set the leg and insert pins in his foot. His junior season at UW was ruined, so was much of his senior year and, thus, his shot of an NFL team drafting him.
Cincinnati signed him in May as an undrafted free agent, but its doctors got scared off by the pins in his foot. The Bengals failed him in a physical. Williams was a free agent again, but only for a few days. Seahawks doctors knew the surgeon who’d operated on Williams’ foot; he advised them not to worry about the pins. And Seattle’s coach Pete Carroll had recruited Williams when he was at USC a half-dozen years ago. Carroll signed him to the Seahawks on a minimum-cost, free-agent flyer on the chance Williams’ leg strength, confidence and physical dominance would return all at once.
They may have.
Monday, Williams was the star of a second consecutive training-camp practice. He made a diving catch of a pass from third-stringer R.J. Archer while racing behind the secondary along the goal line for one touchdown. Then he ran down a deep pass from Archer along the left sidelines, reached with his 6-foot-1 body to the ball and sprinted across the goal line for another score. Those were only two passes he saw in scrimmage play.
Saturday, he got four targets against the starting defense in a mock “game” – and had four receptions. That tied Doug Baldwin for the team lead that day. The first catch Saturday was Williams’ best, a sprint directly past starting cornerback Cary Williams on a go route for a 30-plus-yard play. Everyone including the team’s grounds crew noticed the 219-pound guy running like he was 169.
Looking back, Williams says the altering injuries “happened for a reason.”
“It brought my hunger back and my motivation back,” he said. “It gave me back my love for the game of football.
“I’d played very well for my whole life up to that point. I was coasting.”
Not anymore. It’s obvious Williams is considering each Seahawks practice – even walkthroughs in ball caps -- as a huge, potentially final opportunity. He was one of the last Seahawks to get on the field in the offseason because he had to wait per NFL rules for his college class to graduate.
He’s been trying to make up for lost time and undrafted status with huge plays despite scant opportunities since.
“I have to,” he said of treating each practice as a game. “I don’t have a choice, because these guys have been here for OTAs and they were here last year.”
An even bigger chance comes Friday in the preseason opener against Denver. While it’s just a first preseason game on a team with all but three starting positions set, it’s the biggest game of Williams’ life. As he noted with a grin, Friday’s exhibition will be inside the same CenturyLink Field in which he had his best season at UW, his 2012 one. The Huskies played their home games there that year while Husky Stadium was being renovated.
Then the following Friday night at Kansas City the Seahawks’ second exhibition game will be his next biggest game. And so on, throughout August.
“Every, single day (is big),” he said. “I’m not getting many opportunities to make plays, so every one I get I have to come down with the ball.”
It seems like he has through nine practices of training camp. And, yes, Carroll has noticed. He always has when it comes to big, physical wide receivers.
Seattle’s needed one for two years. It may or may not have found one in February’s Super Bowl when 6-foot-5 Chris Matthews almost became the game’s most valuable player with his first four catches and touchdown of his career. But he Seahawks could use a few more.
Such as Williams?
“He’s a tough dude,” Carroll said. “His senior year didn’t look like the senior year that people probably expected or he expected. He came back from a very, very difficult injury, and he may not have really had all of his confidence back.
“He’s battling out here. He’s a real tough, aggressive, physical type of receiver, which we love his style. So we’ll just let it keep going. You certainly can go to him. You can throw the ball to him and he’s going to make plays, you can see that.
“It’s just like the guy he was when we saw him coming out as a senior in high school.”
After he chose UW over Carroll’s USC, he continued to excel during games but drifted some during practices. Williams admits now he wasn’t exactly dedicated for games and practices.
Then came the gruesome injuries, the two lost seasons at UW – and a revelation that is fueling this resurgence as an undrafted rookie with a chance to make the NFC champions. If he shows he can contribute on special teams – he’s been practicing with all four punt and kickoff units – he could follow the same path Doug Baldwin and Williams’ former Huskies teammate Jermaine Kearse took to not only make the Seahawks but become their top two wide receivers within the last four years.
That’s why the exhibitions starting with Friday’s are so huge for him. He has four chances to show he’s back to being the Kasen Williams the football nation coveted out of high school.
His confidence sounds as back as his game looks.
“Yeah, I’m taking advantage of my opportunities,” Williams said.
“And there’s still more to come.”