Carson Williams sat on the Western Kentucky bench on March 13, his immediate fate in the hands of his college basketball teammates. They faced North Texas in the Conference USA tournament final, with an NCAA tournament berth on the line. Odds were that the loser wouldn't make the Big Dance as an at-large bid.
The Hilltoppers, led by possible NBA first-round draft pick Charles Bassey, were tied in the final seconds. Williams, one of WKU’s best role players, found himself at one of the biggest crossroads in his life.
Win and the senior would move on with his teammates for WKU's first March Madness appearance since 2013. Lose and … Williams would immediately start his journey on what some thought was a hare-brained plan: to try out for the NFL.
“To make it even crazier," Williams told Yahoo Sports, "the last time I played football was in the eighth grade.”
End of a basketball run at Western Kentucky
The game went to overtime, tied at 48. The rock fight continued before North Texas’ Javion Hamlet hit a runner to take the lead with 13.9 seconds remaining. It would end up being the game-winner. Williams’ NCAA tourney dreams were dashed, the third straight conference final loss for the Hilltoppers (although he did make the Big Dance as a freshman with Northern Kentucky in 2017, scoring 21 and grabbing nine boards against Kentucky in 2017, before transferring to WKU.)
Williams played well in the C-USA finals, scoring eight points and grabbing three boards, right around his season averages of 7.5 and 5.3. But his college hoops career had ended. Williams told the coaching staff that he wouldn’t join the rest of the team for its first-round NIT game against St. Mary’s, even if having to make that call ate at him.
Head coach Rick Stansbury did not view it as a betrayal.
“If there’s an ultimate team guy, it’s Carson Williams,” Stansbury said. “If he stayed and played with us, that would have put him behind doing what he really needs to do and focus on to be ready for that [pro day].”
Make no mistake, though: Had the Hilltoppers won the conference tournament, the plan would have changed.
“There’s no chance I would have opted out of the NCAA tournament,” Williams said. “It was a hard decision even for the NIT. But if we were in the Big Dance, I was going to be there.”
Who knows if Williams' football dreams could have gotten off the ground if they'd won. Everything now hinges on a pro-day performance in a sport he hasn't played in almost a decade.
Hatching his secret hoops-to-football plans
The NBA wasn't a realistic option for Williams, listed on the roster at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. He’s not the 6-11, 235-pound Bassey, a tailor-made big man for the league. Williams understood this; he knew playing professionally, perhaps overseas, was a possibility.
That's his fallback. Just a few days removed from his heartbreaking loss, Williams was well underway in a crash course to becoming a football prospect. With Western Kentucky’s pro day set for April 1 — no fooling — time is not on his side.
Williams has had the NFL dream “in the back of my mind for a few years now,” despite not having played football in high school or college. It was now or never.
“If I put everything into it and I fail, I can live with that,” Williams said by phone this week. “But if I don’t try and am always wondering ‘what if?’ then that would be hard to live with.”
Williams formally informed his coaches of his plans prior to the C-USA tournament. He initially told only a select few close to him, mostly family.
It wasn’t met with universal approval at first.
“It was a lot of … confusion,” he said. “Like, [they said] 'what are you talking about?' That type of reaction was pretty common from my family.
“But once they figured out that I might have a chance with it, that maybe it wasn’t as crazy as it sounded. I did get a lot of support after the [initial] surprise of it.”
That was about a year ago. Right after a chance meeting with another college-hoops-to-the-NFL conversion, one with a tie to Western Kentucky, helped give him the confidence to go all in.
Williams' mentor? He's made the same leap before
New York Jets right tackle George Fant was working out back at his alma mater in the offseason last year, but in the Western Kentucky basketball weight room.
That made some sense. Yes, Fant played football for the Hilltoppers in 2015 as a blocking tight end, appearing in a handful of games and catching one pass for 7 yards. Fant was far more accomplished on the hardwood for WKU before that, averaging 13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds as a then 6-foot-6, 250-pound power forward.
Fant initially balked at the idea of playing pro football, even throwing away letters from NFL teams fascinated in his athleticism. He eventually gave it a go and shocked people with his pro day workout, running a 4.84-second 40-yard dash and vertical jumping 37 inches after bulking up to 296 pounds as an offensive tackle.
It worked. Fant earned a spot on the Seattle Seahawks’ roster and within six months injuries made him their starting left tackle, trying to block All-Pros Chandler Jones and Cameron Jordan. Less than five years after he made the plunge, Fant has started 38 career games for the Seahawks and Jets, who signed him last offseason to a three-year, $30 million deal.
So when Fant approached Williams and chatted him up in the Hilltoppers’ weight room, it was like a sign from above for Williams.
“He came up to me and asked if I ever thought about trying football,” Williams said.
Williams said yes, and they stayed in touch. From that point on, Fant has helped give Williams the confidence he needed to mimic Fant's hoops-to-football blueprint.
“George is a big reason I am doing this,” Williams said, having just come from a workout with the Jets tackle earlier that day. “He’s been a mentor to me throughout the process.”
Prepping for a last-minute pro day
With two weeks to prepare for a pro day that some athletes have spent five years prepping for, Williams needed to get familiar with the battery of drills (40-yard dash, 3-cone, the jumps, etc.) scouts come for, and start steering toward a position. Tight end? Offensive tackle? Something else?
For now, Williams is working out as a tight end, trying to pick up whatever scraps of positional work he can. As with Fant when he came out, those plans can change. He’s now a 320-pound tackle.
Williams said he’s the rare college athlete who is actually bigger than his listed height and weight on WKU's basketball roster.
“I’ve been 250 [pounds] since the beginning of basketball season. I am in the 255 range right now and between 6-5 and 6-6,” he said.
That helps Williams’ case. And it isn't lost on Williams that his and Fant’s stories aren't too different.
“We were playing basketball our senior seasons at about the same size," Williams said. "He was about 6-5, 6-6 and 250 himself. He thinks my athleticism will come out in the testing drills, just like his did.”
Jacob Davis agrees. He's the co-owner and director of performance at D1 Training in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and the man tasked with whipping Williams into a different kind of shape. In less than a quarter of the normal time frame he gets with his clients.
“Traditionally, I have eight to 12 weeks with football players to get them ready for their pro days,” Davis said. "And they’ve played football [recently], so these drills aren’t foreign to them like they are to Carson.”
Shortly after the North Texas loss, Williams showed up ready for the gauntlet. Davis has him lifting weights four to five times per week, doing movement sessions on the field another four or five times a week and getting a crash course on the basics. Like getting in a football stance. And catching passes. All while not setting him back with an injury that could derail the whole operation.
“His body has been thrown for a loop,” Davis said. “Doing back-to-back lifting sessions two days in a row. In basketball season, you might get two lifts in during a week.
“And we’re not just working at tight end, either — there are going to be scouts at the pro day who might want to see him put his hand on the ground. I’m pretty much throwing the kitchen sink at him right now.”
The early returns have stunned Davis, who also oversaw Fant’s transformation from football neophyte to high-end NFL tackle.
“I give George [crap] for this, but I think if we measured George and Carson at the same points [in their development], I gotta say — even though I think George would disagree with this — that Carson is a better athlete now than George was then.
“And George is a phenomenal athlete,” Davis said.
So what can we expect, testing-wise, from Williams at the pro day?
“People [in the NFL] are aware of his skill set,” Davis said, without giving too many specifics. “They also are aware of him having about two weeks of training.
"I think the expectation is low. But the wow factor is going to be off the charts, man.”
How Carson Williams can make it to an NFL roster
The college basketball-to-NFL-tight-end conversion is a well-worn highway in recent years.
Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham are the big ones. Others include Darren Fells, Julius Thomas, Mo Alie-Cox and Rico Gathers. Other athletes such as Julius Peppers and Fant have found success at different positions.
Fant did it the hard way, as an undrafted free agent, which is almost certainly the path Williams must take. And if it means putting on nearly 70 pounds and moving to offensive tackle, as Fant has done, then Williams is game.
“If a team wants me to do that," Williams said, "that’s what I’ll do.”
Davis believes Williams could go the Fant route if needed, but says Williams might be more easily projectable now to tight end.
“I think if he can get to a team that will teach him the fundamentals of the position, George absolutely has the physical ability to play tight end in the NFL,” Davis said. “I’m saying [Williams] belongs alongside some of the great athletes at that position, Travis Kelce and George Kittle. Very similar physical [traits] to those top guys.
“It’s down to the lack of football knowledge and experience right now.”
As far as the jumping and the short-area quickness drills, “that’s where his basketball athleticism and explosive-movement skill can take over. I think if you look at the higher end for the [scouting combine testing] at tight end, Carson is going to be right in that range for all of them.”
Williams added: "I think my workouts are going to be strong. Obviously, there is that thought in the back of my mind, will [scouts] think, ‘This guy has never played football before?’ I don’t know. I can’t control that.
"Hopefully, I can just open some of their eyes and not let them think I can’t do it. I just want to have that one team take a chance on me."
If it works out in the end for Williams, the blow of leaving his basketball teammates behind will lessen. For now, he's just a fan. Williams will watch his former teammates play Louisiana Tech on Thursday night in the second round of the NIT from the same spot he watched the St. Mary's win: his couch.
"Watching the St. Mary’s game from home was … it was weird. Not being out there with them, it’s kind of a bittersweet feeling," he said. "But I’ve been hearing I should play football since I played in eighth grade. Even a few coaches in our conference said that.
"So why not give it a try?"
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