The smile on Damian Williams’ face tells you that enough time has passed.
Time to ease bad memories.
A freshman season gone wrong at Arkansas. The decision to leave. The fans who called him a traitor and a momma’s boy.
“It’s tough when you hear people say things about you,” he said. “Not the most flattering things.”
There is a traditional Shaker song about the gift of coming down where you ought to be. Standing on the practice field at USC -- some 1,500 miles from controversy -- Williams can smile because he feels that way.
The sophomore wide receiver is relieved to be past the upheaval of switching schools and having to sit out a year. Through the first weeks of training camp, he has displayed smarts and quickness.
“He’s got a savvy about him, like he’s a real veteran player,” Coach Pete Carroll said. “He understands the game beautifully.”
And he returns to the field just when the USC receiving corps needs a spark, a jump-start, something.
While the spotlight has focused on a young offensive line and the quarterback mix -- including another Arkansas transfer, Mitch Mustain -- the receivers must rebound from a 2007 season in which they took a back seat to tight end Fred Davis, accounting for fewer than half of all receptions.
Fans are waiting for the next Mike Williams, the next Dwayne Jarrett or Steve Smith.
“You’ve had guys like that,” Damian Williams said. “You’re going to have high expectations.”
The pressure doesn’t seem to bother him. It might not feel so bad compared to the rocky path that brought him here.
Much has been written about what happened at Arkansas, a football season turned soap opera.
“Nobody really knew the whole story,” Williams said. “Anytime there is missing information, opinion turns into speculation and speculation turns into rumor.”
He reduces the chaos to a simple chronology.
It started with Springdale High, down the road from the Arkansas campus, and an undefeated team in 2005. Mustain committed to the Razorbacks, but then changed his mind. Williams and tight end Ben Cleveland were headed for Florida. Then Arkansas hired their high school coach, Gus Malzahn, to be offensive coordinator and install Springdale’s spread offense.
“When coach went there, it was a big deciding factor,” Williams recalled.
The Springdale stars followed Malzahn to Fayetteville. By the second game of the 2006 season, Mustain was a starter and Williams was on his way to becoming the team’s second-leading receiver.
However, behind the scenes all was not well.
USC was partly to blame. After the Trojans swamped Arkansas, 50-14, in the opener, Houston Nutt, then the Razorbacks’ coach, took a second look at his talented running backs.
“My whole thing was, ‘Let’s get the football to Darren McFadden at least 30 times a game. Let’s get it to Felix Jones 10 to 15 times,’ ” Nutt told the Tulsa World.
Forty-five rushing plays did not leave much room for a pass-oriented attack. Though Mustain went 8-0 as a starter, he gave way to Casey Dick late in the season and Williams saw fewer chances to catch the ball.
“It was nobody’s fault,” Williams said. “It just didn’t work out the way we expected.”
A group of Springdale parents, including the Mustain and Williams families, met with Frank Broyles, then the athletic director, to express their concerns and were publicly condemned for meddling. At the same time, a vocal contingent of Arkansas fans criticized Nutt for abandoning the spread even as he guided the team to a Jan. 1 bowl game.
Then an Arkansas fan filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Nutt’s cellphone records, which showed that he had sent more than 1,000 text messages to local news anchor Donna Bragg. Nutt denied accusations of a romantic involvement. The records also included communications with a booster who had sent an angry e-mail to Mustain.
By that time, Malzahn had left to become an assistant at Tulsa and Williams had transferred to USC. Mustain, his friend since kindergarten, would soon follow.
“Both of those guys went through some very tough times,” Malzahn said. “We just talked about the things that were happening and what was best for them.”
Surf the web. Check the Arkansas fan sites about the time Williams asked for his release.
Let that momma’s boy do some crying . . .
Great parents . . . teach your son to bail out on his brothers . . .
Who cares where this little traitor winds up?
Williams’ father, David, recalled: “There were times when it hurt him deeply to see the same fans who had praised him three months earlier suddenly turn their backs on him.”
A religious family, the Williamses prayed and looked for another school. When USC expressed interest, Damian liked its recent history of All-American receivers, guys in the NFL. He also watched the Trojans play Michigan in the 2007 Rose Bowl, a game that was tied, 3-3, at halftime.
“They didn’t throw much and I was sitting there thinking, ‘Maybe this isn’t the place for me,’ ” he recalled.
The Trojans erupted for 29 points in the second half, quarterback John David Booty passing for four touchdowns. Williams said: “I knew, at that point, I needed to be there.”
The change was not easy. Los Angeles represented culture shock -- “I’d never seen real traffic jams other than accidents” -- and the only person he knew on the team, tailback Emmanuel Moody, ended up transferring to Florida.
There was also the frustration of sitting out.
“That year was a little strange,” David Williams said. “He learned a lot.”
But when Mustain called to talk about the possibility of switching to USC, his childhood friend sounded happy. And when the quarterback came to visit, Williams had obviously adjusted to new surroundings.
“He knew everybody on campus, it seemed,” Mustain said. “He’s able to talk to anyone.”
The numbers are not immediately impressive.
At 6 feet 1, 190 pounds, Williams does not possess the size of Mike Williams or even current receiver Patrick Turner. His speed is average. But Malzahn talks about his knack for fighting off defensive backs.
“You throw the ball and he’ll find a way to come down with it,” Malzahn said. “He’s got tremendous instincts.”
USC coaches say they have seen evidence of this quality, Williams following an impressive spring with an equally solid training camp.
During a recent afternoon practice, he caught a pass at the back of the end zone, was flattened by safety Taylor Mays and held onto the ball. During the team’s most recent scrimmage, he grabbed several short passes over the middle.
Williams knows what to do from all three receiver positions. As Mustain said: “He’s intelligent, which I think really helps him. He’s able to see things and make things happen.”
The coaches don’t really care who emerges from a pack that includes Williams, Turner, Vidal Hazelton, Ronald Johnson, Travon Patterson and others. They just want someone to step up.
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said the team will make an effort to help the receivers this season, going back to them even if they drop balls, trying to build their confidence.
Williams clearly wants to be a go-to guy, but he also talks about how much his teammates have improved from last season. He doesn’t want to sound boastful.
“I’m having fun,” he said. “This is a great atmosphere out here.”
For now, that’s enough to keep him smiling.