EAST WINDSOR: Hun graduate works way back into NFL

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
Against some pretty long odds, Nick Williams has been named to the Atlanta Falcons’ 53-man active roster to open the NFL season.
The Hun School graduate will suit up for the Falcons when they host the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football.
“It feels great,” Williams said. “Last year, being out of the game for most of the year after the first week of the season, to come back and make a team, the initial 53, it feels great. I’ve always been brought up, so to make the initial roster, it was one of my goals. It’s really an awesome feeling.”
Williams bucked the odds to make it. He didn’t come from one of the most stories programs, but he was a solid receiver and a special teams spark at the University of Connecticut, where he set the career kickoff return yards record. He wasn’t drafted after his senior year, but got a chance as an undrafted free agent. At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, he won’t run over or jump over many in the NFL, so he relies on his speed, quickness and elusiveness.
“My stature never opened too many doors for me over the years,” Williams said. “It’s helped me out. It’s always given me a little bit of drive to prove that regardless of my size that I can get the job done.”
When he was released from the Washington Redskins practice squad in the second week of last season, he faced an uncertain future in football. It’s hard to get back into the game.
“I spent the remainder of the season at home,” said Williams, who grew up in East Windsor. “I got called in for a couple workouts.
“It’s tough,” he said. “You go through the waiver wire and you’re on a short list. You hear similar words from teams and your agent. There might be a month where you’re not contacted by anybody. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. You’re kind of in the dark until your phone rings out of the blue.”
Williams did have his year of NFL experience. After graduating from UConn, he signed with the Redskins as an undrafted free agent in 2013, and in the first week of November he was elevated from the practice squad. He scored a two-point conversion against the Eagles in his debut, but then last year he didn’t make it for long on the team.
“The whole coaching staff left and we brought in a couple receivers,” Williams recalled. “They released me and put me back on practice squad. During the second week they released me.”
Williams had sniffs at returning. He worked out for Atlanta last October, but they signed a different receiver. The Indianapolis Colts contacted him to work out for a returner spot, but signed someone else before Williams had even worked out for them.
“The entire league is notified when you’re brought in for workouts,” Williams said. “It keeps you somewhat current.”
The setbacks fueled Williams’ desire to return to the league, and he got his chance when former Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan moved on to Atlanta. Williams was signed in February.
“I had worked out the entire year,” Williams said. “The hard part is you never know when you’re going to get workouts. If you go out and squat and kill your legs, and then get called in the next day, that’s going to be hard. I probably did a little too much out of frustration. After I got signed, it was nice. There was a tangible date.”
Williams continued to work out, occasionally at Hun where he focuses on stair workouts on campus. He attended the Falcons mini-camps and learned the playbook and found ways to work on his route running and getting himself in position to compete for a job. When the preseason opened, Williams felt ready.
“One thing that was different was mentally,” he said. “My mind was a little stronger. That had a lot to do with what I went through the previous year. I didn’t put much thought into the numbers game. I kind of went out there and every day tried to do my best and not worry about it and let my game take care of it. Always being an undrafted guy, with a new team, the odds are stacked against you.”
Williams had a strong showing in the preseason. He led Falcons receivers with 17 catches, which went for 157 yards. And while Atlanta has arguably the top kick returner of all time, Devin Hester, they could also use Williams if teams kick away from Hester.
“Honestly, I’ll do any role I can,” Williams said. “Coming in third down, coverage units, returning kicks, special teams, any place I can be of service.”
Williams didn’t try to think much about where he stood on the roster during the preseason, but he did feel confident as it unfolded. There were clues to how well he was doing.
“You kind of get an idea based off the reps you’re getting, who you’re playing with,” Williams said. “Things change so fast with guys getting signed and released. You’re never really secure. Honestly, you never really know. That’s why it’s best not to think about it.”
Now Williams is preparing for his first time on an opening game roster. It’s different, but he will fall back on his time with the Redskins.
“Experience is underrated,” he said. “Being there and having played a couple games during the regular season, you know the routine, know the preparation, now what the media is like. I’ve played three preseasons. This is going on my third year. I’m not as wide eyed as I used to be. The game slows down and having that experience in your back pocket helps and knowing the sort of effort and preparation it takes helps.”
After the opener, Williams will get as close to home and Hun as he will at any point in the season when the Falcons travel to the New York Giants for Week 2. There have been some bigger players and bigger names to come out of Hun, but it is Nick Williams who has worked his way back into the NFL. 