Receiver Williams adds spice to bland camp

August 12, 2007|By RICK MAESE

For observers, the inevitable problem with training camp for a team like the Ravens is that the month of August is exciting only because of its function - as a prelude to Week 1. For actual news value or the development of story lines, you're better off watching C-SPAN reruns in the middle of the night.

Here we were, barely a week into training camp, and The Sun reported on the front page of its sports section last week that Ray Lewis' favorite training camp food is the tuna melt, while Ed Reed prefers fresh fish and Brian Billick enjoys barbecue ribs. (The Billick revelation actually prompted a newsroom argument because a half-dozen Sun writers were lining up to be the first to second-guess the head coach's choice and point out that the rotisserie chicken is healthier, much more sensible and not nearly as messy as the ribs.)

The drama certainly can be understated at a training camp in which the team's starting lineup is essentially set before Aug. 1, but it still exists. For proof, we need look no further than the Ravens' receiving corps.

On paper the depth chart is written in ink - just a thin shade of gray separating Mark Clayton from Derrick Mason, and Demetrius Williams as the No. 3.

In actuality, though, opposing defenses could learn pretty quickly that those numbers are but rough guidelines. Very rough.

There are those around camp who not only expect Clayton to compete as the Ravens' clear-cut No. 1 receiving threat, but also think Williams, in his second season, will play a more prominent role than the veteran Mason before the season is more than a few weeks old. This is not exactly a minority opinion, either, as prognosticators are nearly unanimously predicting a breakout season for Williams.

Williams has heard it, of course, as national writers swoop into camp every few days and pose similar questions about heightened expectations and his growth since his rookie campaign.

"Right now, it's all just words," Williams says. "It's something you can listen to, all the hype, but it doesn't really mean anything. You still got to go out there and play. I just need to stay focused and do better than I did last year."

It's the right mind-set for Williams to have, but it doesn't mean everyone else can't start playing out the season in their heads. Billick has been unwavering in his praise of Williams during training camp, and during last week's scrimmage against the Redskins, in the Ravens' first 11-on-11 series, Williams was the target on five plays, making three catches for 38 yards.

For all of the talk about how much Willis McGahee changes the Ravens' offense, Williams might stand to benefit more than anybody. By now, everyone's expecting a single-back offense to open up the passing game. To start the season, Mason and Clayton will each draw opposing teams' top corners, which means Williams should benefit from a potential mismatch.

"And we'll expect him to win those matchups," wide receivers coach Mike Johnson said.

While the coaching staff thinks it has a line of versatile wideouts, Clayton and Mason should be used more as possession receivers. Williams will often serve as a deep threat, almost guaranteed to lead the team in yards per catch - assuming quarterback Steve McNair is able to heave the ball downfield, which is, admittedly, a pretty big assumption.

"I don't want to say he's only a deep threat, though," Johnson said. "He can do it all. He can catch the short passes and make a great run after the catch. He can go vertical, run down the middle. He can do a lot of things and we're going to tap into all of them."

The Ravens of the past established the ground game for the benefit of having a ground game. Finally, running the ball should actually open up some options. Right now, in August, at least, it looks to be the closest this team has ever had to a balanced attack.

Williams is coming off a season in which he caught 22 passes for 396 yards. He will get more opportunities this year, as he asserts himself as a player who understands the intricacies of the position.

"For good receivers, what happens is they start as an athlete, that's how they mature," Mason says. "As the days and years go on, you know you're looking at a good athlete. But to become a better football player, it's about practice and the opportunities to make big plays.

"Everyone knows when you got a good athlete, but then you got to see if a guy can become a good football player as well. What we're seeing right now is Demetrius becoming a good player."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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