SPARTANBURG After each practice since the Panthers reported to Wofford for training camp, you can find Brandon Williams somewhere on the field.
There he is working on his hands in a stationary pass and catch from receivers coach Ricky Proehl. Another day he’s on the field with other receivers and tight ends refining his route running. One afternoon he’s on his knees in front of a blocking dummy testing his blocking techniques.
Williams, a second-year tight end, has improved dramatically since the Panthers signed him as an undrafted free agent last season. A former basketball player who played just one year of major college football, Williams is combining his physical gifts with his football abilities.
“I think Brandon has come as far as anybody,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “To consider where he was a little over a year ago as a guy that was at a regional combine, and he gets brought in to see what he’s all about, to make the active roster as a rookie and now here we are a year later to see the growth he’s made, it’s a testament to the hard work he’s put in with (tight ends coach) Pete (Hoener).
“I think he’s light years ahead of where he has been. He’s obviously very physically gifted. And as things start to slow down for him and piece it all together, I think he has a chance to have success.”
Williams grew up on the south side of Chicago, an area known more for its basketball products than football. He played football and basketball at Joliet Junior College in Illinois before getting a scholarship to play football at Oregon in 2010.
He had two receptions for 48 yards for the Ducks in their national runner-up year. But he didn’t play in 2011 when doctors found he had spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spaces within the spine), as well as a bulging disk and bruised spine.
Without football, Williams returned to basketball at Portland Bible College. In 2013, he received an invitation to join 200 other NFL hopefuls at a regional scouting combine in Dallas, where those not invited to the national scouting combine in Indianapolis have one chance to show their talents to team scouts.
At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Williams ran a 4.56 40-yard dash, and Carolina signed him after the April draft. He earned a spot on the active roster, but his football talents lagged behind his physical abilities and he saw just 28 offensive snaps in nine games last year.
“Last year I was way behind, being out of football for two years,” Williams said. “Just having a year of experience has really helped me develop.
“Getting more aware of football, being more aware of my surroundings when I’m out there. My fundamentals have gotten better, and route running as well.”
Williams stayed in Charlotte for most of the offseason and was a mainstay in the training room. One of the biggest improvements has been his footwork.
Often last year he would contort his hips and get his feet tangled when the ball was in the air. Now he looks more fluid on the field.
“Last year I was kind of lost with the footwork. I was just kind of coasting on athletic ability,” Williams said. “This year I’ve actually started using my footwork that I’ve learned from coach (Hoener) and putting it together with my athletic ability.”
The Panthers don’t need him to be a pass-catching tight end though. Olsen was the team’s leading receiver last year, and Carolina has brought in former Oregon tight end Ed Dickson to help with more two-tight end sets like in 2011 with Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.
That means the Panthers want Williams, No. 3 on the depth chart, to block. And that’s not a problem for a guy whose muscles seemingly have muscles.
“To me (blocking) is almost as satisfying as catching the ball, just being physical and opening up lanes for the running backs to run,” he said.
Williams’ physique has been turning heads at training camp despite this being his second one with Carolina. It led Dickson to exclaim “have you seen that man?” to reporters last week.
Last year, quarterback Cam Newton gave Williams the nickname “Swoll Bones” for his muscular build. The nickname stuck, and during one recent interview a Panthers teammate couldn’t register who “Brandon Williams” was until he was told it was Swoll.
“At first (the nickname) was a little weird, but I’ve learned to embrace it,” Williams said. “It makes me feel like I’m part of the team.”