Adaptable Williams takes first steps toward NFL

MOBILE, Ala. -- The NFL staffs leading the teams at the Senior Bowl keep their playbooks simple. The coaches have only a couple of days to install plays, and they have a responsibility to the multitude of coaches, scouts and personnel men on the sidelines to display as many different kinds of players and plays as there are schemes on fall Sundays.

All of which falls right into the large hands of Alabama tailback Shaud Williams, who has played in so many offenses in the last five years he could be a Washington Redskin. Evidently, he knows how to adapt. Playing for Mike Shula, his fifth head coach in five years, Williams led the Southeastern Conference in rushing yards (1,367) and attempts (280).

After the South team's first practice Monday with the San Diego Chargers coaching staff, Williams had a twinkle in his eye as he said, "This is my sixth language I just picked up."

The Andrews, Texas, native began his career for Spike Dykes at Texas Tech in 1999, and set a school rushing record for freshmen by gaining 230 yards against Colorado. When Dykes retired, and Mike Leach brought in his spread passing game, Williams tried it for one season, then called Dennis Franchione at Alabama. Fran had recruited Williams at TCU.

So much for finding stability. Franchione took his power ground game to Texas A&M, and Mike Price replaced it last spring with the West Coast offense. When Alabama fired Price shortly after spring practice and hired Shula, Williams started all over again.

"I've seen so many systems," Williams said Monday evening at the Adam's Mark Hotel, the Senior Bowl headquarters. "This is kind of like the one that Coach Shula runs. It wasn't that hard for me to pick up."

The constant turmoil might have broken a lesser player. Williams rose to every occasion, serving as an emotional and forthright spokesman for his Crimson Tide teammates after Franchione's resignation and again, months later, after Price's messy departure.

"It helped me grow as a person," Williams said. "I feel like there aren't too many things that can happen to me now that I'm not prepared for. Being in the position I'm in now, I'll always expect change."

Williams and the other running backs on the South team -- Cedric Cobbs of Arkansas, Brandon Johnson of Auburn, Greg Jones of Florida State and Mewelde Moore of Tulane -- spent the first part of practice Monday running drills under the exacting eye of Chargers running back coach Clarence Shelmon.

In one drill, Shelmon put the backs three yards in front of him, and he stood between two big garbage cans turned upside down. When Shelmon shouted go, the back had to start toward him. Shelmon would then lean one can toward him, and the back would have to cut into that "hole."
Williams was the only back to cut into the hole at full speed without running over the can.

"He seems to pick up stuff very well," Shelmon said after practice. "There are subtle nuances in running back play that he seemed to have down -- seeing the hole, being able to cut. I watched two games of his on tape before I came here. I was very impressed with him as a runner. I didn't realize he is as small as he is."

Alabama listed Williams at 5-feet-8, 191 pounds. At the National Scouting Weigh-In on Monday morning, Williams topped out at 5-feet-7 ½, last among the 95 players invited, and 184 pounds. Jones, for instance, came in at 6-1 3/8, 250. Williams has a lot at stake here. He is hoping for an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine. A good performance this week may get him one.

"The biggest thing I've got to prove is I've got the whole size thing going against me," Williams said. "The deck has been stacked against me even since I started playing. Greg Jones is a big back. I'm not the type of back Greg Jones is. Our styles are totally different."

The Senior Bowl also measures arm length and hand size. Jones' hand measured 9 ¾". Williams, nearly six inches shorter and 66 pounds lighter, had his hand measured at 9 5/8". That may explain the 24 receptions for 161 yards and a touchdown this season.

There is room in the NFL for both a Stephen Davis and a Domanick Davis, so Williams is not just here because he's wearing a crimson helmet. Alabama and Auburn players are always on the roster here, because the Senior Bowl has to sell tickets. And no other player had a 12-by-16 print of him for sale at the Rick's Sporting Goods table in the hotel lobby.

Senior Bowl executive director Steve Hale said he tries to have at least one of every type of back on each squad.

"You want a true fullback (Johnson)," Hale said. "You want the big one-back (Jones). Then you have to have true tailbacks (Cobbs and Moore). Then you have a third-down back."

Third-down backs come in to produce, either by running or by receiving.

"Is he going to be an every-down back? I don't know," Shelmon said. "But he can run it 12, 15 times and maybe catch it a couple of times. It just depends on what people are going to ask him to do ... He plays big. He's a little guy who delivers a blow."

Williams points at his yards and carries this season to prove his durability. One look at his career path proves his adaptability. The shortest player in the game has the longest resume. Asked if he kept in touch with any of his former coaches, Williams said, "None. I'm always in the position of trying to learn a new offense and forget theirs."

In today's NFL, that may be a plus. Gone are the days when Bill Walsh built San Francisco 49ers into a dynasty by teaching his West Coast offense to the same players season after season. With salary caps and minimum salaries for veterans, developing talent over time is as obsolete as the straight-ahead kicker. A player's ability to adjust to a new system can mean the difference between employment and an early start on that insurance career.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.