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Chargers' Mike Williams ready to prove he's recovered from injury-riddled rookie season

The first step is hard and to the inside of the pressing cornerback’s foot. You don’t waste too much time at the line of scrimmage. It’s a deep route; the quarterback can’t hang on too long, so you’ve got to move with purpose.

After that quick jab step, you’ve got to get vertical, 18 to 20 yards down the field. You want to keep your defender on your hip — you can’t beat him yet. And then, quick, you plant your inside foot and turn back toward the line of scrimmage.

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One, two, three steps and the ball is in your hands.

This is the way Mike Williams describes how a wide receiver runs a comeback route.

He had performed another kind of comeback route after suffering a broken neck at Clemson. And after sitting out most of last season because of back issues, he’s ready for another.

The Chargers are hoping his monster preseason is a prelude of things to come.

“When people doubt him, you see a different Mike,” his high school coach, Chris Carter, said. “When people go to sleep on him, they see a different type of person. And it’s happened more than once.”

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Williams, the seventh pick in the 2017 NFL draft, was the victim of training camp’s first giant hit.

“I knew it’d be someone,” he said. “I just didn’t think it’d be me.”

On only the second day in pads, Williams came across the center of the field and Denzel Perryman, the Chargers’ fire-hydrant middle linebacker, knocked the receiver off his feet, his legs flying up.

Williams rolled through the big shot and popped back up. He looked at Perryman and went back to the line.

The ball never hit the ground, landing softly in his hands — the big hit setting the stage for the great catch.

“I needed something like that, to make a play like that in front of everybody,” Williams said in an easygoing South Carolina drawl. “Everybody was watching, I caught the ball, got hit and popped back up like, ‘Whassup. I’m good. I’ve been hit harder than this before.’”

Told about the play, Carter laughed. He knew what it meant.

“That’s what ignites the engine in him,” Carter said. “That’s when I’ve seen him play at different levels, especially when people do that kind of stuff to him. You see a different kind of animal in him.”

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That animal was unleashed on the Chargers’ secondary in practice and on opposing defensive backs in preseason games, as Williams was one of the biggest stars in camp. He also has been one of the most reliable red-zone threats in practice, and in the second game of the preseason his leaping touchdown catch against blanket one-on-one coverage made the highlight reels.

But first, he had to get cracked.

Hard.

It was one of the best plays of his young Chargers career that began with an injury-riddled rookie season. His first preseason was erased by a herniated disk in his back, an injury that caused his hamstrings to tighten.

That gave way to a knee injury suffered on Thanksgiving, and the rest of the season he caught only two more passes for 11 yards.

It was a disaster of a season for a player who had rebounded from near tragedy just a year before. After catching a touchdown pass early in his junior season, Williams got shoved in the back. With his balance thrown off, he slammed his head into the padded base of the goal posts, suffering a broken neck.

Williams thought that maybe it was only a bruise; that maybe the numbness he felt (or didn’t feel) wasn’t that big of a deal.

The trainers knew better and called for a stretcher.

The next season he popped back up, said “Whassup” and showed everybody he was good, catching 98 passes for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns as Clemson won the national championship.

And, it gave him a baseline he would use later: “I hurt my neck and came back and had my best season ever. I’m capable of getting hurt and coming back, know what I’m saying?”

Second-year receiver Mike Williams was one of the biggest stars of the Chargers' training camp.
Second-year receiver Mike Williams was one of the biggest stars of the Chargers' training camp. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

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This comeback exists more in the minds of others than in Williams’ head.

It all began before the draft when Williams suffered from back spasms while training for the NFL’s scouting combine.

And then the morning after his first day of rookie minicamp with the Chargers, Williams couldn’t get out of bed. The hope was that he’d be fine in a few days, but tests revealed a herniated disk, and Williams didn’t play until Week 6 of the regular season.

“It wasn’t the right timing for me,” he said.

But in the NFL, no one has time to wait. He caught only 11 passes in his first season, essentially a nonfactor in the offense.

His confidence looked as if it had been severely bruised. His quarterback, Philip Rivers, seemed to trust other targets much more.

In only one season, the whispers saying “bust” started to surface. But Williams calmly and rationally looked at his situation and decided everything was going to be OK.

“I wasn’t able to do the things I do, the things that got me here,” he said. “I wasn’t able to do those things. I wasn’t able to go up and make a catch like I’ve made. I couldn’t do it.

“I wasn’t able to move my body the way I’ve been able to move it and make those weird catches. My back was holding me back. My hamstrings were all messed up from my back. It was more than the back. It was connected. It was a lot more things. ...

“The outsiders were the ones saying, ‘He’s this or he’s that.’ But me? I’m the one who knew I was hurt. It was simple: get healthy and we back. There was no doubt.”

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Williams is smiling a lot more than he did during his rookie season, his hair perched high as he walks off the field after practice.

It’s not hard to see the mental transformation he has undergone.

“I’d be the first person to tell you that,” Williams said when asked if the difference was like night and day. “It’s totally different for me. I’m able to go out there and make those plays I couldn’t make last year, make the contested catches. The confidence just comes from being out there. I’m back out there having fun.”

Just to make sure, Williams changed his routine after his first season. He stopped eating steak, cutting one of his favorite meals out of his diet. He took up yoga to improve his core strength and flexibility.

And, in perhaps his greatest sacrifice, he eliminated his favorite food.

“I had stopped eating Honey Buns for a while even,” Williams said in a way that made it seem as if he had quit oxygen instead of a two-box-a-shopping-trip Little Debbie habit. “I was eating those every day — every day, all day. And I stopped for a long time. It was hard. I went back to ’em, though.

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“But I went a few weeks, maybe even a month. At the grocery store, I’d walk right by them. It was crazy. I stopped for a long time before I decided, ‘I’ve got to get back to my Honey Buns.’”

It’s what he does, always coming back, and the Chargers are counting on it.

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