There were a lot of things that attracted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to Auburn running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams.
Sure, Cadillac's production, which included 3,831 yards (5.2 avg.) and a school-record 45 touchdowns stood out on paper, and the 5-foot-10, 217-pound Williams' toughness and ability to consistently produce when given the ball in short-yardage and goal-line situations was impressive as well.
But Williams' decision to participate at the Senior Bowl last January in Mobile, Alabama was what made the biggest impression on the Buccaneers coaching staff, which coached Williams and the rest of the South team at Senior Bowl.
"At the end of the day that also had a lot to do with our decision," said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of Williams' decision to participate at the Senior Bowl. "This guy loves football. He's a great kid. He's going to want to do everything he can to get an edge whether it be weightlifting, studying game film or running an extra mile or two.
"We were hoping he would be there in a lot of ways. Obviously, he's a great football player. He's versatile, fast and tough. When it is all said and done, this is a guy that really wants to be great. He's got tremendous drive and is very self-motivated from a team that went 13-0. He's going to fit nicely in what we want to do offensively."
During the week leading up to the Senior Bowl contest, Williams caught Gruden's eye with his abilities and attitude.
"Just being around him you feel energy," said Gruden. "When you hand him the ball you think good things are going to happen. He's got tremendous quickness. He's a very strong man. He's a versatile guy who can catch punts, kickoffs and catch the ball out of the backfield. He can stand in there and pick up blitzes. He's unselfish. At no time in my coaching career can I remember two guys that shared the ball as unselfishly and as productively as they did at Auburn. We're getting a character guy who is going to be there every day for you working his butt off to help our football team. We saw that at close range. I wasn't alone. The special teams coach and the defensive staff and our scouting department. It was everybody."
Williams' ability to pick up a plethora of things Gruden was throwing at him on the practice field all week was one of the things that convinced the Bucs to take him with the fifth overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.
"I think this guy has great aptitude," said Gruden. "We put a lot of things in at the Senior Bowl to test him. To test these quarterbacks and test these skill players to see not only if they can learn it, but if they really wanted to learn it and if it was that important to him. It certainly was in this guy's case. I think he can come in and play quickly I believe. But he's got to come in and prove that."
Most of all, it was Williams' interest in playing in the actual Senior Bowl contest despite suffering from a back strain that convinced Gruden that he would love to coach a tough player like Cadillac at the pro level.
"He's a folk hero in Alabama," Gruden said of Williams. "That's how I describe it. Obviously there were a number of backs who already agreed to play in the game. I think we basically said that we were going to let these guys see the ball during the game. Cadillac and I had a conversation prior to the game and I told him that he was not going to play a big role in this game and I told him that he was going to make a cameo appearance for the fans. We had an agreement. I thought he felt good about it and I felt good about it until the third play of the game and I saw him yelling at me.
"When he showed up down there and demanded to play - he was mad as hell when I took him out of the game - that left a lasting impression on me. I'm looking forward to going to work with this guy for a very long time."
Despite Gruden's notice, Williams said he still hoped to play more than the two snaps he actually got in the Senior Bowl game.
"Coach Gruden came up to me and said, 'I'm sorry but I wasn't going to be able to play.' He said that I was going to play the first two snaps," said Williams. "But I came down there to play. As the game was going on I asked Coach Gruden to stick me out there and he definitely wouldn't do it."
After the Senior Bowl concluded, Williams suspected that the Bucs, whose ground game ranked 29th last season, were seriously interested in drafting him, and that suspicion was confirmed a month later at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
"I got a slight feeling at the Senior Bowl, and then at the Combine, Coach Gruden called me over to the gate - I was going to run the 40. He said, 'I'm going to be calling you in a couple of weeks.' I said I'd be waiting for that phone call. That's when I felt like it was going to be a real good possibility that I was going to become a Buccaneer."
While Williams will likely make his initial impact on special teams, possibly as a return specialist, the fact that he spent his senior season playing in a West Coast system that's similar to the one Gruden runs in Tampa Bay along with the presence of some of the team's veteran tailbacks should help Cadillac make a somewhat smooth transition from college to the NFL.
"He'll be an option (as a return specialist), obviously his number one focus right now is to be a halfback here in this system," said Gruden. "That's obviously a very broad position the way we envision using him. Certainly having a guy like Mike Alstott and some veteran backs like (Michael) Pittman. I think the learning curve will be quick."
Two other backs - Williams' teammates, Ronnie Brown, and Texas RB Cedric Benson - were taken before Cadillac on Saturday, but that doesn't necessarily mean either of those players or USC wide receiver Mike Williams, who wasn't drafted until No. 9 by Detroit, were rated higher than Cadillac on the Bucs' draft board
"I think beauty is in the eye of the beholder, "said Bucs running backs coach Art Valero. "One person may love a guy and one person may hate that guy. Whatever fits your needs and whatever fits your interview processes have gone - whatever fits your particular needs, that's what people end up doing, and that's what we did."
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