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Keiland Williams takes unusual path to Washington Redskins' backfield

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 10:58 PM

On his Thanksgiving table Thursday afternoon, Keiland Williams loaded his plate with side dishes. Macaroni and cheese, green beans and stuffing, but no turkey. The Redskins running back is a "flexitarian" who eats some poultry and seafood, but no red meat.

"He's been like this since he was a teenager," said his mother, Clarissa Williams, who came to town to help with Thanksgiving. "I even told him, 'Try some of my ham. It's good.' He just said, 'Nuh-uh.' "

Not exactly a conventional diet in an NFL locker room, but then again, little about Williams and his path to the Redskins' backfield has been typical.

Ten games into the season, the Redskins' roster features a rag-tag group on both sides of the ball. A wide receiver who was working in a jewelry store not long ago. A newly signed safety who was playing flag football this fall. And a starting running back who wasn't even considered good enough to start for his college team.

"I definitely felt like I could play and contribute and help this team," Williams said. "But starting? To actually be starting with six games left in the season? No, I can't say that even I thought about that."

Williams will get his second start of the season this Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said Thursday. It will be the third straight week Washington will rely on him as its featured back.

Williams started only three games in four years at LSU, but those who saw him play aren't necessarily surprised that he caught on with an NFL team.

"He's a tremendously talented guy," said Larry Porter, Williams's running backs coach at LSU and now the head coach at Memphis. "He has the speed of a sprinter and the hands of a wide receiver. He's just a natural running back."

An ankle injury prevented Williams from running at the NFL scouting combine and he went undrafted in April. In Washington, he entered training camp with four running backs ahead of him on the depth chart. Williams now finds himself as the only one of the group still standing. Larry Johnson and Willie Parker are out of football. Clinton Portis is on injured reserve. And Ryan Torain will miss a second straight game with a hamstring injury.

But even the Redskins weren't always certain how much Williams could contribute. He was released after the team's Week 3 loss to St. Louis but was added to the practice squad after clearing waivers and rejoined the 53-man roster a week later, on Oct. 9.

Williams has 195 yards on 49 carries in six games since then. He also has 162 receiving yards on 24 receptions this season. In a limited role thus far, he leads the team with five touchdowns.

Shanahan says he can see Williams's confidence growing with each passing game.

"The more repetition you get, the more you're able to play in game situations, the better off you feel," Shanahan said, "especially as a young guy coming in."

Football was actually Williams's second sport. He fantasized about an NBA career as a young boy but realized in high school that football might be the better ticket.

In 2004, he ran for more than 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns as a junior at Northside High in Lafayette, La., and was named the state's Class 4A offensive most valuable player. A college scholarship and a pro football career were never far from his mind.

"We talked about it probably every day," said Tyson Andrus, a close friend since middle school and a teammate of Williams's in high school and college.

Williams was held back a grade as a child and had to transfer schools before his senior year because Louisiana High School Athletic Association rules prohibit a 19-year-old from playing sports. He enrolled at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia for his senior season and, while sharing carries in a crowded backfield, piled up 1,325 yards and 12 touchdowns.

He says the year at a military school was good for him. Growing up with his grandparents, he was familiar with discipline. Hargrave required students to be up at 6 a.m., in class at 7 and in study hall until 9:30 p.m., with lights out at 10.

He left the school regarded as one of the top prospects in the nation, rated as the third-ranked running back by Scout.com and the No. 5 prep school prospect by Rivals.com. But picking a college wasn't easy. He committed to LSU but didn't send in paperwork on signing day as he considered offers from Mississippi and USC. For the Tigers, landing Williams was a major recruiting coup.

"I do overanalyze a lot of things," Williams said. "Before I agree to something, it has to make full sense to me."

But Williams never became the every-down back the Tigers sought. During his first two years, he was the primary backup to Jacob Hester and ran for 914 yards and 11 touchdowns on 146 carries. He tallied 107 yards and two touchdowns in LSU's 41-14 win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2006 season.

"Initially coming in there, I was like, 'Okay, things need to work my way. My way has been working long enough,'" Williams said. "But they'd explain to me, 'You need to do it this way, need to do it that way.' It didn't always make sense to me."

Said Porter: "The only thing ever holding Keiland back was Keiland. His talent level and his skill set were always there."

In 2007 - the Tigers' national championship season - Williams posted several memorable plays, including a 67-yard touchdown run against No. 9 Virginia Tech on which he leaped a defender at the line of scrimmage and then sprinted onto highlight reels. As a junior, he lost his chance to start to Charles Scott.

"The four years I spent there, I definitely got frustrated at times, definitely thought about transferring at times," Williams said. "But the competitor I am, I always felt I could come out on top. So it was frustrating, but it was also motivating."

In 2009, Scott went down with an injury midway through the season but Williams still didn't have much of a chance. He suffered a season-ending broken ankle on Nov. 21 and finished his college career with 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns on 299 carries.

"He handles some situations better than I do," said Clarissa Williams. "Watching the whole ordeal at LSU, I could see in his face that he got a little aggravated. Some people may not see it, but I'm his mother. Watching how he handled it and how humble he stayed, that's helped me."

The ankle injury meant Williams could do little to prepare for the draft and wasn't able to run at the NFL scouting combine.

"With everything that happened, I'd felt that if I finished the season strong and did well at the combine, there was still a chance I could get drafted," Williams said. "Breaking my ankle in the second-to-last game, I knew I couldn't recover before the combine. That was the first time in my life that I pictured my life without football."

The draft came and went, and Williams never heard his name called. But in the hours that followed, his phone kept ringing. Many teams felt he was worth the risk. Williams said he had offers from Carolina, New Orleans, Oakland and St. Louis. He signed with Washington on April 29.

"Knowing Coach Shanahan and how he operates - he puts the best player on the field and doesn't worry about how they were drafted," Williams said of his decision. "Plus, the system he has. My agent and I sat down and reviewed the teams and thought this system was the one I'd fit best in."

After training camp, many teammates were surprised when coaches decided to keep Williams over Torain. But they've noticed Williams's progress since then. "I think the comfort level with picking up the blitz and seeing the blitz as well as running the ball and catching out of the backfield, he's continued to get better with," said quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Until Torain is healthy, Williams is the Redskins' only sensible and healthy option. It wasn't what the Redskins envisioned before the season - it wasn't even what Williams envisioned - but coaches say they're comfortable with his progress thus far.

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