LOS ANGELES -- The best player in college football was back in action Wednesday morning. But just because USC wideout Mike Williams was participating in the Trojans' first practice, making one-handed snatch catches and rag-dolling helpless DBs, doesn't necessarily mean the all-American is any closer to being green-lighted by the NCAA.
"We don't have any indications," coach Pete Carroll said about whether the NCAA is planning on reinstating Williams. "He's just positioning himself to be ready when we get a decision."
Williams, who had jumped to the NFL in the wake of the Maurice Clarett case (i.e. a U.S. district judge struck down the NFL's age requirement), had dropped out of USC, signed with an agent, landed a deal with Nike and took money from a football card company. But on the eve of the NFL draft, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling, leaving Clarett and Williams out in the cold. In hopes of regaining his college eligibility, Williams has had to pay back all the costs he incurred from his time spent preparing for the draft and has been taking two summer classes. USC's compliance office and the school's legal counsel determined that while Williams' case is still pending, he is eligible to practice.
"It was fun being back out there, getting a chance to fly around," said Williams, who seemed very upbeat. "It felt like I never left."
The 6-foot-5 receiver had spent a month at a pre-draft camp in Georgia, working on his speed and shaving his weight down some 12 pounds to 227. He certainly didn't look too rusty. Teammates marveled that he was perhaps even quicker than in the past and just as powerful. On several occasions during the two-hour practice Williams mauled the smaller DBs, outmuscling them for the ball without even breaking stride, leaving them shaking their heads, huffing as cornerback Kevin Arbet once did about "that damn big-assed body."
Matt Leinart, the Trojans' QB, said it was a welcome sight to have that big target back, even more so because of the circus surrounding Williams' situation.
"You can only imagine all that he's gone through in the last five months, so seeing him back out on the field is awesome," Leinart said.
Before suiting up though, Williams had discussed with Carroll, offensive coordinator Norm Chow and receivers coach Lane Kiffin whether it would be detrimental to the team that the junior would be taking practice reps away from greener receivers, most notably true freshmen Dwayne Jarrett, Fred Davis and Derrick Jones. But the coaches believed it made more sense to have Williams practicing.
"They were like, 'You know what, just make the most of it and if [the NCAA] lets you play, you're ahead of the game, and at least you had some time to be out here,' " Williams said.
Kiffin says the decision is easier since it's not like USC is preparing for Virginia Tech yet (the Trojans won't focus on serious game prep until a week and a half before the Aug. 28 game), but also because Williams has taken the new wideouts under his wing.
"Even if the reps are lost, it's worth it because the young guys get to see him and watch the way he plays and the way he works," says Kiffin. "And that really does help them. And Mike does a great job with them."
The buzz around USC is guarded optimism about what the NCAA will ultimately rule. Nobody, though, seems convinced the NCAA is too concerned about its public image or any notion that this is a kinder, more compassionate organization. Williams is still trying to do his part. He hopes the NCAA realizes he didn't do anything wrong.
"Summer school is over August 10 and that seems to be the first hurdle," he said. "I still need to take care of classes and hopefully come August 11, I'll know and then we can just go from there."
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book "Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment" comes out later this month. He can be reached at email@example.com.