Montana

Former Montana punter Williams chasing NFL dreams his own way

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Before Montana played Washington in 2017, Griz punter Eric Williams’ assignment changed. For the first time in his career, his coaches asked him to kick the ball out of bounds. The reason? Huskies burner Dante Pettis, who would go on to set the all-time NCAA record for punt return touchdowns, would be waiting on the other side of the field.

That afternoon, Williams was successful six times. But the one in seven punts he wasn’t able to knock out of bounds floated into the middle of the field where Pettis was waiting.

Pettis caught the ball at the 33-yard line, just inside the left hashmark. He cut the long way across the field to the sideline, leaving a Grizzly in his wake as he cut upfield. When he hit the 50, Pettis stuck his foot in the ground and looped back toward the “W” at midfield. Williams had a chance to bring the returner down on the sideline, 20 yards from the end zone, but whiffed. The 61-yard touchdown return was Pettis’ seventh of his career, which broke the Pac-12 record for punt return touchdowns in a career and ensured that Williams’ kick was plastered all over ESPN that night.

“At least it was a decent-looking ball,” Williams said.

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On Monday of draft week, Williams brings a dozen footballs to Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula for a 90-minute kicking session. He kicks the balls to one end of the stadium, then back to the other. He aims outside the numbers, where NFL teams expect punters to place balls, not at the hashmark where he gifted a record to Pettis 18 months earlier.

Sometimes he switches to field-goal kicking, since NFL teams don’t have room on their rosters for backup kickers and he’d be expected to step in if a placekicker got hurt. His long is 59 yards, but the frequency of mishits make him little more than an emergency option.

As the session winds down, the footballs are scattered across the south end zone. Some fell short, one bounced into the stands. One of the footballs is gone, stolen during one of the punting camps where Williams is coached by some of the top gurus in the country. At $75 a pop, losing a football is no small expense. Luckily, he didn’t have to pay for these balls. They were sent to him by EMG Sports, Williams’ Philadelphia-based management group.

Williams grabs one of the remaining balls off the turf and turns towards Topel Tunnel, where the Griz run onto the field before home games. The tunnel’s opening onto the field cuts out a small section of the stands around it. An eight-foot-wide section of the first five rows of bleachers is missing. Williams drops the ball, kicks it and watches it hang in the air before it drops cleanly into the opening. Then he takes a few steps up the goal-line – and closer to the tunnel – picks up another ball, and kicks it. Again, the ball drops into the opening at the end of the tunnel.

It almost looks like NBA star Steph Curry’s warmup circus shot from the tunnel, when he sprints off the corner of the court toward the locker room, turns around 45 feet from the basket and and heaves the basketball through the hoop, all in front of a few thousand excited fans. But for Williams, this is reversed. For one, he’s kicking into the tunnel, not away from it. Second, it’s April, and the 25,000-plus who inhabit Washington-Grizzly Stadium in the fall migrated away five months ago. Third, even if there was a crowd, Williams will almost never be cheered when he makes a play.

Punters are athletes, but they’re a different type. Steph Curry is known for the shots he makes, not the ones he misses. He ends up on SportsCenter if he pulls up from the logo and bangs home a 3-pointer. If he air-balls, the commentator might quip about his bold decision but, two possessions later, all is forgotten. When Williams wound up on SportsCenter it was because he made a mistake.

Last year, the leading punter in the NFL averaged 48.6 yards per kick. The 32nd-ranked punter averaged 42.3. Williams averaged 42.1. The margins are slim enough that the real competition for one of the 32 NFL jobs is in the mistakes, which means that six out of seven successful kicks, like Williams had in that Washington game, isn’t enough.

The first round of the NFL draft is Thursday, the second and third are Friday and the fourth through seventh are Saturday. Williams’ name will not be called but he might get an invite to an NFL training camp it will likely be because he was one of the eight or 12 or 15 recent grads each NFL team brings in during the following week to fill out its 90 spaces on the roster. By the time the season arrives in September, only 53 of those players will remain. Only one of those spots is for a punter. If Williams is offered what is essentially a summer-long tryout sometime in the next week, he’ll need to stay mistake free. One bad punt may be ignored. Two likely won’t.

As the days tick away before the draft, Williams just wants a chance to join the competition. To try to dodge making those mistakes, Williams has been working harder than he ever has before.

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Former Montana punter Eric Williams celebrates former UM special teams coordinator Travis Niekamp/ by Brooks Nuanez

As Williams walks to the bench press station during the Grizzlies’ pro day, one scout tells him punters don’t have to do the drill. He doesn’t care. The punter does it anyway. He lies on the bench and grabs the bar with 225 pounds loaded onto it.

He figures 15 reps would be a strong showing. He brings the bar to his chest, then extends his arms. One. Two. Three. Around rep 14 he starts to slow down. It isn’t a surprise — that’s where one receiver dropped out. Fifteen… Sixteen…. Seventeen..… Eighteen……  That’s where an offensive lineman hit a wall a few minutes before.

Williams gets to 20, which would be third-most among punters at the NFL Combine in the last 13 years. HeroSports.com compiled the top performances from every Football Championship Division pro day. A photo of Williams was chosen for the page about special teamers.

But everything didn’t break Williams’ way in front of the scouts. Snow kept him from working out on the field. Instead of punting in front of the evaluators, Williams had to record a charting set once the weather cleared and send it to them. He also weighed in at 5-foot-10 and 192 pounds. He was listed as 6 feet on the team website.

“They said Keenan (Curran) is 6-foot-1,” Williams said, laughing. The receiver was given another inch on the team’s roster. “There’s something wrong with the measurements.”

Williams doesn’t have every credential NFL teams look for. Standing 5-foot-10 at a position where the average NFLer is 6-foot-3 is just one of them. The most notable omission is his lack of All-Big Sky Conference honors. He thinks it’s because voters don’t know enough about punters, so they choose the players with the longest average punt. He’s quick to point out that, in six of 11 games as a senior, he allowed zero or negative punt return yards. Nearly half of his kicks forced the opponent to fair catch the ball, and 39 percent left the opposing offense inside their own 20. He allowed under 100 punt return yards, and 58 of them came on one return touchdown against Western Illinois.

Since the Big Sky Conference didn’t recognize him, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He pulled data from all the punters in the conference, as well as some of the top punters in the nation, and put it in a spreadsheet. He created a statistic that factors in stats like distance, inside the 20 rate, touchback rate, and others, weighted to value the skills he believes are most important. Williams’ ability to pin opponents deep in their territory helped him rank near the top.

Eric Williams/ by Brooks Nuanez

“Braden Mann from (Texas) A&M, who won the Ray Guy (Award for best college punter in the nation) last year, his stats were crazy,” Williams said. “He averaged 54 yards per punt or something, but had a 30 percent touchback rate. So he was just kicking it as far as he can every time. Different coaches want different things.”

For all the work Williams is still putting in, it’s probably too late to change whether he gets an NFL shot. The information scouts received at the Pro Day can’t be updated. They’ve held their interviews. They’ve watched the film. Williams doesn’t have to peddle his highlight tapes like he did back when he was trying to find somewhere to kick after he graduated high school, and then again when he decided to transfer. EMG Sports distributes them for him. The most recent one opens with the kick former Griz head coach Bob Stitt called the best punt he’d ever seen.

It came in the fourth quarter of Montana’s season-opening game against Valparaiso in 2017, with the Griz were holding onto an 18-point lead. Williams catches the ball at his own 27-yard line, takes three steps forward and kicks the ball from the 31. It hangs in the air for a little over four seconds before it drops five yards from the end zone. Then it bounces to the one-yard line and rolls parallel to the goal line before one of Williams’ teammates touches it down, leaving Valparaiso 99 yards away from a touchdown.

“That’s just luck,” Williams said after kicking a similar ball during his workout. “If you kick the ball end-over-end, you have the best chance for it to stop when it hits the ground, but you can’t really control it.”

The Valparaiso kick capped the game that put Williams on the NFL radar. In the season-opener of his junior year, he punted the ball four times. The first flew 50 yards, then went out of bounds, setting Valparaiso up inside their own 10-yard line. The next flew 57 yards, with enough hang time to force a fair catch. The next was a 48-yarder, fair caught inside the 20. The last was the dribbler downed at the one. It was the game of his career and afterward, he became a pro prospect.

“People started asking the questions,” Mark Williams, his father, said. “They see his numbers and think, ‘He might have a shot.’”

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Jump back 22 years and Williams is still in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Again, he’s 20 yards or 30 yards from the Topel Tunnel, but this time he isn’t on the field. He’s in the stands at the 50-yard line where his parents, season-ticket holders, still sit. The Griz beat Stephen F. Austin in their season-opener, their first game since Marshall blew Montana out in the 1996 national championship game.

Williams slept in a baby carrier with a bottle, underneath his parents’ spots on the bleachers. He was three months old. For the next 15 years, before high school sports interfered, Williams never missed a home Griz game.

Montana punter Eric Williams allowed just 28 return yards in league play and averaged 42.5 yards per punt, the fourth-best distance in the league/ by Brooks Nuanez

As he grew up, Williams learned the names and numbers. After games he went down on the turf for autographs. But despite growing up watching football, Williams played soccer. It wasn’t until his junior year at Loyola Sacred Heart High School in Missoula that he made the switch. The football team was building a powerhouse in Montana Class B football and Williams wanted to join the program. In his two years on the team, he won two state championships. But that wasn’t enough to earn a scholarship to play college football.

Williams spent his freshman year at Carleton College in Minnesota. Carleton is an elite school academically – US News calls it the fifth-best liberal arts college in the country – but the athletics programs are nothing special. The Knights compete in the Division III Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and the football team has only won one league title in the last 63 years. They’ve finished with just one winning record in the last 25. With Williams at punter they won two of 10 games, against Knox College and Hamline University.

But Williams played well. He ranked top two in the conference in most major punting statistics, despite playing on a torn meniscus. He’d filled out physically and began to kick the ball farther. He kicked the ball so hard that, around this time, he started to lose feeling in the top of his foot. Punting the ball discharges about 20 pounds of force and, over time, the nerves on the top of his right foot died. Now he can kick a ball barefoot without pain.

Williams was ready for more of a challenge and he wasn’t in love with the Midwest. Carleton was an island. The people were kind, but didn’t have much in common with Williams. Outside the town of Northfield, corn fields stretched for miles. He sent a video of his highlights to coaches across the country, but he couldn’t garner much interest. Again, no scholarship offers. Williams decided to head home.

“I thought, ‘Oh jeez, you might never see the field again,’” Mark Williams said.

The Grizzlies became interested after Williams’ senior year of high school, but by that time he’d already committed to Carleton. When Williams was ready to come back to try to make the team, the coaching staff at Montana had been fired and replaced by a new staff who didn’t know who Williams was.

He enrolled at the University of Montana for his sophomore year and joined the Grizzlies for spring football. His timing was perfect. The Grizzlies’ four-year starter at punter had just graduated, opening up the job.

Still, Williams faced long odds. There was stiff competition for the position and he wasn’t on the coaching staff’s radar. He impressed the coaches enough during spring ball that they kept him around for fall camp. On opening day, he ran through Topel Tunnel as the starting punter. A year later, he earned a full scholarship.

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Eric Williams celebrates a punt during a game against Valparaiso in 2017/ by Brooks Nuanez

Up until college, Williams believed he’d become a fourth-generation attorney. He never thought the NFL was in play. He’d followed in his father’s steps up to that point, through Loyola High School then to a small school to play college football. But, while at Carleton, Williams realized he was talented working with numbers and wanted to put it to use. He became a finance major and following his junior year of college, he scored an internship with Goldman Sachs, the fifth-largest bank in the United States.

For 10 weeks, Williams served as an investment analyst in Salt Lake City. He was part of the 2 percent of 17,000 applicants who were selected. He graduated in May 2018 and could have taken a job with Goldman Sachs, but he decided to stick around Missoula to play his senior year and try for the NFL. He convinced Goldman Sachs to hold the job offer open until the fall, in case the NFL doesn’t work out. Williams has a safety net most other NFL prospects don’t have.

Williams didn’t grow up sleeping on the floor of a duplex that housed 12 people, like future Hall of Fame receiver Dez Bryant. He didn’t attend 11 schools in nine years as a homeless youth like Michael Oher, the subject of Michael Lewis’ “The Blindside.” Fifty-four percent of NFL players, the most in the league’s history, grew up in counties with higher than average rates of poverty. For them, the NFL is a golden ticket. They can’t blow their shot at a career in football, because a career in the league is a meal ticket. Motivation is easy to come by. For Williams, missing out on the league means his dream would die but, to many, a career with Goldman Sachs is enough of a dream.

Williams doesn’t think that puts him at a disadvantage. Coaches love to say the player who “wants it more” wins. Maybe desperation provides an advantage at positions that pit tacklers against runners or blockers versus rushers, but face-to-face matchups aren’t a part of Williams’ job. That’s a rarity in sports. The emphasis on technique and touch makes punting as much art as it is anything else.

“For a lot of positions, you have to have that hunger,” Williams said. “But I think for a lot of punters and kickers, just because it’s such a mental game, having that furious hunger can really mess with your head in a position where you really need mental clarity and to be relaxed.”

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Montana head coach Bobby Hauck talking to former Montana punter Eric Williams/ by Brooks Nuanez

The April sun is reflecting off the bleachers left bare by a crowd that won’t return until September. The fans have been gone since mid-November, when the Grizzlies lost the Brawl of the Wild to Montana State, and lost their shot at a playoff berth with it. That was the happiest moment of Williams’ career. Not when the Griz lost, but when they had the ball with two tries to steal the game from one yard out and a win appeared inevitable. The loss crushed him.

His final days on the turf in Wa-Griz reflect when he burst onto the college football scene. It’s just him and a duffle bag of balls. At first he was trying to earn the starting punting job at UM. Now, he’s trying to earn a chance to prove he belongs in the pros. In 2016, his first year eligible to play for Montana, Williams posted a trick shot video on Twitter that went viral. Fox Sports shared it. So did Bleacher Report. In the video, he knocked a placekick 35 yards from one sideline to the other and landed it in a garbage can. In another clip, he spun a football on the ground, waited for it to pop up on one end and kicked it through the uprights from 40 yards out. He posted one of him kicking from the top of the stadium and dropping it onto the midfield logo. In yet another he punts the ball into the second deck of the stadium.

He’s tempted to pull out the trash cans again, but decides against it. He has more important things to focus on during his time in the stadium. For the last four months Williams has split his time between training and working at an investment firm in town, where he interned before landing the Goldman Sachs gig. He wants to keep his mind sharp in case the NFL doesn’t work out. He lifts at Peak Fitness in the early mornings, then heads to work, then trains in the stadium. He does yoga, though not in public, to stay flexible and avoid injury. He’s eating healthier, too. He wants to take advantage of the time he has in Missoula with his family and his girlfriend. He doesn’t have time to mess around with videos.

He kicks a ball and watches it bounce around and settle inside the 10-yard line. The next hits in the same spot and goes into the end zone after the second bounce.

“In the NFL, somebody gets that,” Williams says.

He mishits the next punt and it flies out of bounds a little too soon.

“That’s the worst thing that can happen,” Williams says. “No, actually it could get blocked.”

“Or you could kick to Dante Pettis.”


About Henry Chisholm

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