Williams seizing opportunity at Senior Bowl

MOBILE, Ala. -- He will be a grizzled veteran soon enough, because pro football careers are so short they make dog years seem like an eternity. But 24 hours into Senior Bowl week, 24 hours into his life in the NFL, Carnell Williams allowed himself to sound like a giddy teenager. He described what it felt like to be sitting in a meeting room Sunday night listening to Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden.

"When he first came in the meeting room Sunday night," Williams said, "I was like, 'Wow! That's Coach Gruden.' A guy I saw on TV. A great coach. I was just stunned. He got everybody loose, then he got down to football."

The advice Gruden gave his South team was simple and straightforward.

"Each practice is like a game," Williams recounted. "You got to take that approach. This week, you get to play a game on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. You get to play six games. You just go into practice full speed. He told us not to take reps off, which I'm not accustomed to doing anyway. Go hard every play. Relax. We have been playing football all our lives."

Williams is the Senior Bowl's prize catch, not only for the skills that project him to be one of the first names to roll off of NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's tongue next April, but because Williams, a native of Attalla, Ala., played at Auburn. Nothing sells tickets for the Senior Bowl like a tailback who leaves the Tigers first in career rushing touchdowns (45) and second in rushing yardage (3,831).

"I've been out in Arizona working out," Williams said, "twice a day. It's been great to be back to see some orange and blue."

He is listed on the roster as Cadillac Williams, and he was announced at the Monday morning weigh-in as Cadillac Williams. But as he glides toward his professional career, Carnell Williams has done nothing so nakedly marketing-conscious as legally surrender his given name for his nickname.

"Call me either," Williams said, waving off the question.

General Motors can wait. Williams came to the Senior Bowl to market himself the old-fashioned way. On a week when two other top seniors, Cedric Benson of Texas and Ronnie Brown, Williams' running mate at Auburn, chose not to play, Williams couldn't resist.

"I just came to showcase my skills so that they're not watching film," Williams said. "I want to be up close for them to evaluate me. Hopefully, I'll be the top back drafted. I really feel comfortable with it. A week under this coaching staff, the other coaches, the GMs -- I should win some people over."

Williams survived the weigh-in, in which a ballroom with 500 chairs isn't enough to hold the coaches and scouts who watch as each player, in shorts and socks, has his height and weight measured. Williams, listed at 5-foot-11, 212 pounds, was announced at "5-1-0-1," which means 5-10 1/8, and 206.

He didn't mind giving up the 7/8 of an inch, but he is determined to go to the NFL combine next month between 212 and 215 pounds.

The NFL staffs who agree to coach at the Senior Bowl don't spoon-feed their players.

"The great thing about it," Tampa Bay running back coach Art Valero said after a chilly practice Monday, "is that we want to throw as much at them as we can in a short amount of time so we can see, and everyone here can see, how much they can retain. They'll have to do that every week [in the NFL]."

Practice started with the offense broken down into three units, running through their basic running plays. Williams caught a break. He lined up behind Jason Campbell, as he has for the four years at Auburn.

"I know his cadence. I know how he throws the ball. I know his every move," Williams said.

As Campbell barked signals, TCU tight end Cody McCarty leaned forward one hut too early. Valero described the players as thinking too much throughout the practice, a symptom that should clear up by Tuesday.

Williams collected every handoff, even when the quarterback was David Greene of Georgia or Brock Berlin of Miami (a last-minute replacement for the injured Andrew Walter of Arizona State). He caught every pass and, on a blustery afternoon, caught every punt save the last, which escaped notice because the whistle ending practice sounded as Williams skittered after the ball.

"I get a sense that the game is really not that important," Williams said. "The practices are more important." He caught himself. "Not to say that the game is not important."

What Williams understands is that the coaches and scouts and GMs leave Mobile by Thursday. The Senior Bowl schedule is the reverse of the NFL. The first four "games" of the week are the ones that count. The exhibition schedule begins on Saturday.

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