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 the University of Washington bench. As the physical, gifted wide receiver landed onto the synthetic grass, his left leg buckled. Then the University of California cornerback that was defending Williams landed on his lower leg.
The Parade magazine national high school player of the year for 2010 out of Skyline High School in Sammamish 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 have pins inserted into 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 the team’s 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. The Seahawks signed him 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.
On 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, reaching with his 6-foot-1 body to the ball, and sprinted across the goal line for another score. Those were the only two passes he saw in scrimmage play.
On 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 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 a 169-pounder.
Looking back, Williams said 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 final 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 exhibition opener against Denver. While it’s just a first exhibition 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, the exhibition game will be inside the same CenturyLink Field in which he had his best season at UW (2012). The Huskies played their home games in the Seahawks’ stadium 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 Williams has through nine practices at 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 6-5 Chris Matthews almost became the game’s most valuable player with his first four catches and touchdown of his career.
But the Seahawks could use a few more and Williams, the son of former Wilson High and UW track and football star Aaron Williams, could fit the bill.
“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 Williams chose UW, 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 his resurgence as an undrafted rookie with a chance to make the NFC defending champions.
If Williams 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 one of their top two wide receivers within the past four years.
That’s why the exhibition games that begin Friday 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.
“Yeah, I’m taking advantage of my opportunities,” Williams said.
“And there’s still more to come.”