Packers GM Ted Thompson loves answers like this.
Ask Arkansas tight ends coach Richard Owens what will make the undersized (6-2, 245) but ultra-productive D.J. Williams successful in the NFL, and the reply comes without hesitation.
“It’s important to him. The game of football is important to him,” Owens said. “He loves playing the game.”
The Packers strive to get players that feel that way with every one of their draft picks. The hope is that the combination of Williams’ ability and attitude will allow the tight end to overcome his lack of prototypical size at his position, which helped make him most believe will be a steal at the 141st overall pick.
It’s the missing 2-3 inches and 15-20 pounds that kept the 2010 John Mackey Award winner as the nation’s top tight end available until the fifth round of last month’s draft.
There were certainly no qualms about his character as a community-oriented young man who gives lots of time to organizations such as Big Brothers, Big Sisters and Boys & Girls Clubs. He’s always willing to share his story of escape from an abusive father (highlighted by ESPN’s E:60 show) in order to raise awareness of domestic violence and give others in similar circumstances hope for the future.
There’s also no argument with his production after he averaged 49 catches for 587 yards and three touchdowns over his final three seasons at Arkansas. Owens points to Williams’ natural feel for the game and the position as the trump card to his size at the college level.
“He can beat a linebacker one-on-one, and he did it week in and week out for us, year after year,” said Owens, a former NFL tight end himself. “It’s a feel thing, being able to run routes off a linebacker, feel leverage and pressure and know where the holes are. That’s what he does.”
As important as the game is to Williams, he was pretty important to the Razorbacks. One of five players last season to compile at least 600 receiving yards, Williams was as clutch as any of quarterback Ryan Mallett’s targets, particularly in the Southeastern Conference’s hostile road stadiums.
At Georgia, with the score tied at 24 and 47 seconds to go, Arkansas got the ball on its own 27. Williams promptly caught back-to-back passes for 18 and 15 yards, setting up Mallet’s game-winning 40-yard TD toss to Greg Childs with 15 seconds left.
At South Carolina, Williams caught a 19-yard pass on third-and-10, a 15-yard pass on another third-and-10, and drew a pass-interference penalty on third-and-1, with all three conversions leading to scores as Arkansas jumped ahead 17-7. The Razorbacks went on to win 41-20.
At Mississippi State, Williams made an early fourth-and-1 gamble pay off with a 5-yard catch and immediately followed it with a 25-yard TD grab for a 14-7 lead in what turned into a double-overtime victory.
“He just made a bunch of plays in pretty much every game,” Owens said. “I think the biggest thing with him is he’s very consistent.”
He’s also a great teammate, and not just because of his inspirational story. Williams considered turning pro a year early but opted to return to Arkansas for his final season and serve as a team captain.
More than anything, Owens saw Williams’ leadership skills grow during that final year and feels he’s entering the NFL a more mature player now.
“I always tell him, ‘If you don’t ever play football, you could always run for mayor of Little Rock,’” Owens said. “He’s that kind of person, as far as being able to step out and engage with people.”
Nothing distracts him from football, though. It’s too important to him.
“I remember one of the stories on ESPN about him and his history growing up,” Owens said. “He talked about getting hit on the football field and just lying there and saying, ‘I’ve got to get up. I’ve got to go again,’ because it means a lot to him. He cares about it.”
For more feature stories on the 2011 draft class, click here.