In many ways, Maxx Williams saw the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ January bowl game against Missouri as a tentpole, of sorts, a last hurrah.
Prior to the Jan. 1 showdown, Williams, a 20-year old tight end, had come to the conclusion that it would be his last game as Gopher; afterward, he would follow in the footsteps of his father, a 11-year NFL veteran, and turn pro to chase his NFL dream.
But in the meantime, Williams allowed himself to think about how cool it would be to go out with a win and one last highlight-reel play in a season full of them. He came up short on the first objective, as the Gophers lost 33-17. But he came through on the final objective, and in a big way.
In the third quarter, the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder broke off a dazzling 54-yard catch-and-run in which he not only hurdled two defenders and gave the Gophers a brief one-point lead, but also showcased the athleticism and competitiveness that could vault him into the first round in this year’s NFL Draft.
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“I figured it was the last game of the year, I was trying to make my legacy in Minnesota as a last stand, and I figured I might as well go for the hurdle and get going,” Williams said. “Then the second guy came in, and at that point I knew I wanted to score in my last game so I went for it again.
“I was fortunate enough it worked out for me.”
Anyone who had watched the redshirt sophomore Williams throughout the 2014 season could not have been that surprised at his athletic display against Mizzou. Though he finished the season with only 36 catches for 569 yards for a running team, he consistently showed a knack for finding the end zone — with eight touchdowns — and making difficult, highlight-reel catches.
For instance, there was the diving touchdown catch in the back of the end zone against Iowa:
There was also a diving catch near the sideline, also against Iowa:
And who could forget his unique penchant for making one-handed catches down the sideline, which he showed against Michigan and Wisconsin?
Williams credits his ability to make the tough catches to his passion for the game.
“Treating every practice like it’s a game,” Williams said. “You can ask my coaches and my friends; in practice I’m the kid that’s going to be diving for balls. It’s just not in my nature to not try to make a play on every ball.”
That much shows on tape, as does his exuberance after big plays.
“It’s the love of the game,” Williams said. “I know people don’t like this but it is an emotional game, in the end. You put your blood into it, your tears, your sweat … you’ve got your brothers around you.”
But certainly, his God-given talent doesn’t hurt, either. His father, Brian, played center for the New York Giants from 1989 to 1999, while his mother Rochele, played volleyball at Minnesota during 1984-87 and received the Big Ten Medal of Honor in 1988. His uncle, Ron, played for the Gophers and spent two years with the Barcelona Dragons of the World League.
Now, Maxx — who says his parents added the second “x” to his name to be unique and keep people from assuming his name is Maxwell — seems poised to follow in his father’s and uncle’s footsteps as a pro.
“It’s a tough tight end class,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “Williams would be the only guy ... that could be considered a late (first-rounder). I see him as a second-round pick, but he’s a good receiving tight end. Like him a lot as an athlete.”
So do the Chiefs, apparently. Williams said Wednesday that Kansas City was one of 21 teams to request formal interviews with him during the combine. Teams can only request 60 players for such interviews; approximately 350 players are invited to the event.
The Chiefs’ presumed interest makes sense. Even though they already have a budding young star at the position in Travis Kelce, 25, the Chiefs use a ton of two-tight end sets, and veteran Anthony Fasano turns 31 this year.
Demetrius Harris, 23, is a promising young developmental tight end who saw more playing time this year but saw his season come to a close midway through when the fractured his foot.
“You can’t have enough of those guys,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Wednesday. “You’d like to be fully loaded for a tight-end standpoint. We were fortunate this past year to have three guys we felt very comfortable with and we were able to get into some personnel groups where we utilized all three.”
Reid has spoken fondly of his days as an assistant in Green Bay in the mid-to-late 1990s, when he coached the tight ends when Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson both made the Pro Bowl at the position, so he knows firsthand that the West Coast offense can accommodate two stars at the position.
“You can’t double everybody,” Reid said. “So the more of those guys that you have that can be a threat on the defense, the better.”
Of course, no one is predicting Williams to be a star just yet. His ceiling is high, due to his athleticism and ball skills, but he knows the knock on him is his run blocking. He’s willing to do it — he can often be seen blocking to the whistle — but he knows he needs to gain strength to do so adequately on the NFL level.
“I’d say my biggest weakness is my strength,” Williams said. “Being only 20 years old, I know that my body isn’t fully developed or what it could develop into. But I feel like my biggest weakness could turn into one of my strengths as I turn 21, 22 and get those years in the weight room.”
And make no mistake about it, Williams — who believes he can get up to 260 pounds in time without losing his athleticism — is motivated to become a well-rounded player, just like his favorite NFL player at the position, Dallas’ 10-time Pro Bowler Jason Witten.
“He’s a complete tight end, in my opinion,” Williams said. “He blocks, runs routes, makes plays for his team. That’s what I want to be. I want to go to the NFL and be a complete tight end and make plays with my hands, and also in the run game and go and make key blocks.”
If NFL teams believe him, don’t be surprised to see Williams taken in the first round, just like his father, who went 18th overall — the same spot the Chiefs hold in this year’s draft — in the 1989 NFL Draft.
“Not many people can they went in the first round and so did their father,” Williams said. “So to have an opportunity to go in the first round, it would be a moment that I would remember for the rest of my life.”
No wonder Williams seemed to be upbeat and positive during his session with the media on Wednesday. Tight ends work out on Friday, but as he inches closer to following in his dad’s footsteps, he can’t help but enjoy the process and live in the moment, just like he did in his final collegiate game against Missouri.
“At this point,” Williams said, “I’d say it’s a dream coming true for me.”