Panthers’ Williams fueled by the desire to not be caught

Published 6:18 pm Saturday, December 27, 2008

By By MIKE CRANSTON, AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE — The 75-yard run is still the longest in Carolina Panthers history — and perhaps DeAngelo Williams’ most embarrassing football moment.
Getting caught from behind before reaching the end zone on that long run at Arizona last season brought razzing from his teammates, led to a heart-to-heart talk with a cagey veteran, and fueled a burning desire to get fitter, stronger and better.
A year later, memories of that play still motivate Williams, even as he’s established himself as one of the NFL’s top running backs. Williams, in his first year as a starter, leads the NFL with 18 touchdowns rushing and is averaging a whopping 5.4 yards per carry, helping the resurgent Panthers (11-4) to a playoff berth for the first time in three years.
Williams has spent this season running over, around and through defenders. The speedy and elusive Williams has rushed for 1,337 yards and has six touchdown runs of 30 or more yards. That’s one shy of Jim Brown’s NFL record set in 1958.
But his teammates hint that the affable Williams may have relied too much on that natural talent in his first two years in the NFL. After setting the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision record with 7,573 all-purpose yards with the Tigers, the Panthers took him with the 27th pick in the 2006 draft.
The 5-foot-9, 217-pound Williams did little his rookie year playing behind DeShaun Foster. He also was the backup last season, but got the ball in the fourth quarter at Arizona and burst through the line and appeared headed for the decisive touchdown.
Only Williams tired, and the Cardinals’ Adrian Wilson caught him at the 14. Even though he scored three players later from 13 yards, the ribbing was endless.
The game was also the first for then-43-year-old Vinny Testaverde with Carolina. Known for being in top shape throughout his career, Testaverde took Williams aside and told him he needed to get fitter.
But Williams decided not only did he need to get into better shape, he also needed to know the game better. He spent countless hours in the offseason not just working out, but watching film.
Still, while the Panthers decided to release the ineffective Foster, they weren’t completely convinced Williams was their No. 1 guy. And soon after, they drafted Jonathan Stewart of Oregon in the first round.
And quickly set an example for Stewart to follow. On the first running play of training camp, Williams took a routine handoff in a no-contact practice and burst through the hole and didn’t stop. He kept running until he reached the end zone, 80 yards away.
The 25-year-old Williams was going to get used to running the length of the field, and he wasn’t caught earlier this season on a 69-yard touchdown run in a win at Oakland. He soon followed that by rushing for a franchise-record 186 yards in a Monday night victory over Tampa Bay.
Williams and Stewart split carries early in the season, and Stewart had more touchdown runs early. But Williams has become a star in the last half of the season. The native of tiny Wynne, Ark., has rushed for at least 100 yards in six of the past eight games. He has twice rushed for four touchdowns in a game during that stretch, and needs 108 yards in Sunday’s regular-season finale against New Orleans to break the Panthers’ single-season record set by Stephen Davis in 2003, a year the Panthers won the NFC title.
Williams has complemented his speed by getting stronger, which has allowed him to break numerous tackles, key to his 32 runs of 10 or more yards this season.
And Williams seems to have handled his newfound fame well. Williams has always been a jokester in the locker room, but he’s impressed his teammates and coaches for how he’s handled his pairing with Stewart. The two have combined for 2,117 yards rushing, earning the nickname Smash and Dash.
By combining his natural speed and instincts with his increased fitness, strength and understanding of the game, Williams has emerged as a star unwilling to give ground to those chasing him.