Brandon Williams, the all-time leading receiver in University of Wisconsin history, had to overcome a particular NFL bias to become a first-day selection in the NFL Draft. It was a bias shared by his new head coach with the San Francisco 49ers, Mike Nolan.
“I like big players but if a small guy is a hell of a player and a competitive guy then he goes up on my scale,” Nolan said, according to a press release on the 49ers official Web site. “… (Williams) does not play small. He is a very competitive one.”
Williams certainly came up big for the Badgers, giving opposition defenses fits with his quick, tough, intelligent play — packed into a 5-foot-9, 175-pound frame.
“I’m just happy to be here,” Williams said. “I’m just happy to get a chance to make my mark on the NFL.”
Williams’s school record 202 career receptions (first on UW’s all-time list and seventh in Big Ten history) and his 2,924 career receiving yards (second at UW) jump out. But so did his abilities as a return specialist. Williams spent four successful seasons as the Badgers’ kick returner, finishing his tenure with a school-record 2,349 career kickoff return yards (second-most in Big Ten history). He added punt return duties to his portfolio as a senior and was dominant in that regard, averaging 14.6 yards per return with two touchdowns.
“I think it was a combination of my receiver skills, character and my return skills that took me to the next level,” Williams said.
Williams is expected to compete for the 49ers starting kick and punt return positions immediately, while working towards becoming the team’s No. 3 receiver.
“We added another guy who will compete to start on this football team,” said Nolan, who added that, in addition to the return roles, he considered the No. 3 receiver to be a starter.
“I think I bring a lot of awareness,” Williams said. “I’m able to go across the middle. I think I can stretch the field and get underneath. I’m a real quick, shifty guy who can catch the ball at five yards and get a lot of (yards after the catch).”
The 49ers were impressed with the fact that Williams never missed a game due to injury in four years at Wisconsin. Williams did have to deal with recurring stress fractures that forced him to sit out spring practices prior to his junior and senior seasons, but he came into fall training camp his senior year in excellent shape and went on to have a dominant season. His 59 receptions and a 1,095 receiving yards as a senior are the third-highest single-season totals in UW history.
“With Brandon Williams, he’s an undersized guy which is not usually what we like but he’s such a good punt and kick returner and that makes him a valuable prospect for us,” said Scot McCloughan, the 49ers vice president of player personnel. “He gives you a guy who’s done it. He returned kicks for four years at Wisconsin, punts for one, and he’s also the leading receiver in Wisconsin history. He played all four years there, Big Ten, and he’s never been hurt. Durability can be a question with smaller guys, but it hasn’t (been) with him. He knows how to play the receiver position and he’s tough.”
Williams was the 84th overall pick in the NFL Draft Saturday and 20th pick in the third round. He was the second Wisconsin player chosen, 10 picks after tailback Brian Calhoun. Rounds four through seven take place today.
“I wanted to get Brandon out of the third round without having to move up and we didn’t have to so I felt like we won,” McCloughan said. “Things went our way.”
Williams is the latest in what has become a prestigious line of UW wide receivers who have made it to the NFL, joining players such as Lee Evans and Chris Chambers, who have gone on to star as professionals. And Williams’s four-year teammate Jonathan Orr should be selected today.
But of all the receivers in UW history, no one has more collegiate receptions than Williams.
“It really means a lot to me,” Williams said. “Kind of quietly, a lot of Wisconsin receivers have made a nice mark at the next level in the NFL. So just to be in the company of those guys, I’m very happy about that.”