by Rob Moseley
SAN FRANCISCO — Of the five Ducks who participated in Sunday's 49ers-Panthers game, including three of Oregon's all-time leading rushers, four took a conventional path to the NFL.
Adam Snyder, Jonathan Stewart, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner all were all-conference players in their final seasons in Eugene, even all-Americans in the cases of the latter three. Each was drafted the following spring, indicating a firm commitment to give them a shot at making a career out of professional football.
The fifth has no such commitment. And yet, there was tight end Brandon Williams warming up at Candlestick Park for the game, before being listed as inactive by Carolina prior to kickoff.
Williams was a junior for the Oregon team that went unbeaten in the 2010 regular season, and played for the 2011 BCS title — against Auburn and quarterback Cam Newton, now Williams' teammate in Carolina. But Williams was diagnosed with a bulging disk and a narrow spinal column prior to his senior season, and didn't play in 2011.
Two years later, Williams was cleared to return to the football field. He attended an NFL Regional Combine in Seattle this past spring, and has participated in three games for the Panthers this season.
"It was a challenge," said Williams, who doesn't have a reception yet this season. "I felt like I had to work that much harder, just because I was a step behind everyone else. I worked as hard as I could to get noticed."
Williams had hoped to play basketball for the Ducks, he told Panthers.com this fall, but wasn't allowed by NCAA rules. So he began working toward a career in law enforcement, and last year used his fifth and final season of collegiate eligibility to play basketball for Portland Bible College.
The Regional Combines are only three years old. This spring, the bulging disk in Williams' back healed enough for him to be cleared to participate, and he was picked up by the Panthers.
He's looking to take advantage of whatever opportunity that might come his way, whether as a practice player, on special teams or in the event of an injury to a veteran. Williams remains a raw player, but the talent is there, with a freakish physique and excellent speed.
"I feel like I'm at the very beginning," he said. "I feel like I have a lot to learn. I'm just growing and working to get better every day."