He returns as if he's been there before
There has always been one more man to beat for Karl Williams. It is how the rookie free agent from tiny Texas A&M-Kingsville earned a spot on an NFL roster. And it is the only thing keeping him out of the end zone and from emerging as one of the most dangerous kick returners in the league. There were many happy returns for Williams again Sunday against the Vikings.
His 72-yard punt return - the second-longest in team history - set up the Bucs' only touchdown.
Only a diving tackle by Vikings punter Mitch Berger prevented the first NFL touchdown by Williams, who was pushed out of bounds at the Minnesota 13.
In fact, Berger was forced to tackle Williams three times. "I thought I could beat the punter to the pylon and he just kind of dove and tripped me up and made a shoestring tackle," said Williams. "I'll just have to get my legs up and run through it a little more. The guys really teased me a lot about it."
It's not the first time Williams has had that runned-down feeling.
Last week, he recorded the second-longest kickoff return in club history when he took one back 63 yards against Washington before being brought down by safety Stanley Richards.
Earlier this season, in his pro debut as a kick returner at Green Bay, Williams brought back a 26-yard punt before he was collared by Packers punter Craig Hentrich. In that game he had a 43-yard kickoff return that was stopped by safety Doug Evans.
"We needed him to score and help us win," special teams coach Joe Marciano said. "I guess their punter was the leading tackler for them. I think maybe if he'd had turned it up a notch, he could have had three touchdowns."
Berger said he relied on his experience as a high school safety to slow Williams. "I played safety for 12 years, from when I was 7 to my senior year in high school. So a couple of things I just remembered, about taking pursuit angles and trying to judge how fast the guys are to how slow I am."
Williams is the third kick returner the Bucs have used this season, and you have to wonder what took them so long.
Rookie Nilo Silvan handled the kick-return duties for seven games. Former World League player Marvin Marshall inherited the job for four games.
Sunday marked the fourth game that Williams has fielded kicks. His 15.8-yard punt return average after 11 tries would rank among the top three in the NFC if he had 20 attempts to qualify.
In addition, Williams is averaging 27.8 yards on 12 kickoff returns, which also would place him among the league leaders.
If Williams can maintain those averages for another week, both will rank as team records.
"You try to get in that zone where no one is going to tackle you," said Williams. "Everybody is a lot quicker on turf. I felt myself being a lot quicker and able to change directions a lot faster. It was a matter of seeing a crease and trying to hit it hard."
Williams is not overly impressed by his success. Nor is he overwhelmed trying to produce as a rookie in the NFL.
"I try not to think about it too much," said Williams. "I just try to go out there and make plays and do the things I can do. When you start to make plays, you don't think about being a rookie and that you shouldn't be doing this or that. You just try to get out there, run hard and look for openings."
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1996