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The path to a roster spot in the National Football League is not an easy one for an undrafted free agent.
But if Malik Williams needs any insight into the process, he need not look far. Former Hunt High teammate Lewis Neal graduated from LSU and parlayed a strong preseason last year at defensive end into a spot on the Dallas Cowboys’ 53-man roster.
Now, Williams, after two years at the University of Louisville, is at the beginning of his own journey to play on Sunday afternoons. Also undrafted as a running back, Williams signed with the Atlanta Falcons and attended the team’s organized team activities in June. His first training camp with Atlanta begins Thursday when Falcon rookies report.
Already, Williams, who also received post-draft interest from the Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars, has relied on the advice of a Warrior who preceded him in this identical situation.
“I’ve talked to Lewis,” Williams said in a telephone interview Monday. “He always tells me to make sure I’m always in the weight room. Be the last one to leave, and make sure I can always impress the coaches — know what I’m doing, make sure I’m always in shape, and be the best I can be.”
Williams, the son of Pamela Hartfield of Rocky Mount and Calvin Williams of Wilson, was a two-way player at Hunt under head coaches Randy Raper and Stevie Hinnant, lining up at wide receiver and defensive back. But out of high school, no Division I offers — of the Football Bowl Subdivision or Football Championship Subdivision — variety were in hand. So in the effort to get on the radar of major college football, Williams steered his vessel to the west for junior college. He first went to Merced College in Merced, California as a safety before transferring to Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria to play wide receiver again. But it was at Allan Hancock that Williams saw a glimpse of his future, making the switch to running back for the first time out of necessity once injuries tore through the depth chart.
After his sophomore year, FBS offers were on the table from the likes of Louisville, Purdue, UAB and Texas State. Williams opted to cast his lot with head coach Bobby Petrino and the Cardinals.
A relatively quiet junior season at Louisville followed. The team went 9-4 and lost just one game in ACC play in a 42-36 defeat at Clemson. However, that was enough to deny the Cardinals the Atlantic Division title. Williams had 19 rushes all season and was used on kickoff returns.
But as a senior, the 6-foot-3, 221-pounder found his groove in an 8-5 season. He stepped into the starting role in Louisville’s second game at North Carolina last year, finishing with 149 yards on just 13 carries. For the season, Williams logged 531 yards and four TDs on the ground, finishing second on the roster behind do-it-all quarterback Lamar Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens.
“It was great to line up with one of the best players arguably in the country and I feel like I’ve learned a lot from him and how he takes the game on,” Williams said of Jackson. It’s just great to see his success, and learn from him as well.”
At each stop of his career, Williams has had no problem exhibiting patience until his breakthrough takes place.
“I feel like I’m a very patient person,” Williams said. “I just try to fit in where I can get in and fit where needed, and always have a positive mindset toward anything happening. If I’m behind someone, I just try to learn from them, learn their ways and pick up good study habits from them and just do the best than I can.”
Certainly, patience was required in October of Williams’ senior season. Trailing N.C. State by two TDs and driving late in the game, Williams ran a route out of the backfield and caught a pass from Jackson. He was upended by Shawn Boone and attempted to brace his fall with his left arm. The result was a horrendous injury in front of a national television audience. Williams tried to leave the field, but went down before he could do so.
Consider: “Malik Williams injury” is a pre-loaded search term on YouTube.
“I didn’t think I was hurt too bad, but I knew it was an elbow dislocation,” Williams said. “I didn’t know how long the injury would take place, but at that point in time, I thought my season was over with. I was just trying my hardest to get back into it, and I told the trainers that I wanted to do anything possible. That’s when they found a brace for me to wear and I started doing push-ups, working out and using that left arm a lot more.”
Williams missed just two games, returning against Wake Forest. His career-best performance soon followed against Syracuse at home, rushing nine times for 180 yards and a pair of scores.
Now, Williams finds himself leaning on his versatility in the effort to land a spot with the Falcons or elsewhere. With names like Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and fourth-round pick Ito Smith of Southern Miss on the running back depth chart, Williams is well aware of his straightest path to sticking around — make an imprint on special teams, coverage or otherwise.
“That’s a big objective of mine to make sure I can secure a real valid spot,” he said. “Special teams is the fastest way to do it. Special teams is always the best way for rookies and undrafted free agents to secure a spot and get their hands into it.”
Williams assured the Falcons’ veterans hold no animosity toward rookies and embrace teaching roles.
“At the end of the day, we all want to win,” Williams said. “That’s the whole objective, is just to go out and compete and just learn from them the best ways to go. They treat us like little brothers.”
Whether it’s a 53-man spot, a practice squad position or a chance with another organization, Williams is ready to give the NFL his best shot.
“I hope to make as many plays as possible,” he said. “Just compete at all times and show what I can do — make a name for myself, whether it’s special teams or offense. Just trying to fit in where I can get in.”