Cardinals CB Brandon Williams puts 'chaotic' rookie season behind him

"I'm sure last year a lot of times he didn't believe he belonged out there because he was unsure," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said of Brandon Williams. "Now he's pretty sure of himself." Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Brandon Williams reported for his first OTA of his second season last month, a calmness washed over him. He had a confidence that eluded him this time last year. He understood what was unfolding in front of him. He knew how to make his body respond in the right ways.

The chaos was finally over.

"The first day was a hell of a lot different than last year," Williams said.

A year ago, the former third-round pick out of Texas A&M was embarking on a head-spinning rookie season. He had converted from running back to cornerback during spring practice before his senior year in College Station, Texas. A year and four months later he started his first NFL game at corner.

It may read like a fairy tale but Williams' first year with the Arizona Cardinals wasn't all "Happily Ever After."

He struggled, mightily at times. Adjusting to a new position in college is one thing. He could get away with not knowing the intricacies of the position. His footwork could be off. His technique could be wrong. Williams had the athleticism to make up for it and mask his learning curve. Doing it in the professional ranks, however, was an entirely different beast.

He didn't know what to focus on -- or what not to focus on. Going out there every day was "just recess, really."

"Last year was very hectic ... chaotic," Williams said. "Everything was everywhere because I was new to the position. I was new to everything. Everything was brand new to me. I didn't really understand a lot of concepts. I didn't understand a lot of stuff about defensive back at all.

"I was just out there playing. Everything was just super fast, too. I know because it was my first year and because it was my first time playing the position so everything was everywhere."

Williams never doubted his ability to play the position physically as he became the starting cornerback opposite of perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson. It was parts of the scheme, such as situational football, that tripped him up.

Against the New England Patriots in Week 1, Williams missed a hand signal when a receiver went in motion. The signal was meant to inform him that the defense had checked from zone to man coverage and he wasn't to hand his coverage off to a safety while rolling back to the line of scrimmage. That miscommunication led to a Patriots touchdown.

The next week, Williams was supposed to alternate each series with Marcus Cooper, which they did until Cooper had a pick. Then they stopped alternating and then Cooper had a pick-six. By Week 3, Williams was on the bench.

He took it hard.

"I was never put in that kind of position before, going from a starter to being, basically, a bench rider," Williams said. "I wasn't used to that. It took me a little while to refocus and get back on my feet. When I did decide to not let that bring me down, I was looking for revenge."

It took Williams an entire week to work through the emotions of being replaced in the starting lineup and it didn't help that he wasn't sure what his status was all week, he said. Nine months later, sitting in front his locker and showing off an outgoing personality that was bundled up last year, he described himself as being "a little upset" when he was benched. But once he got over it, he was "ready for whatever."

Williams, however, didn't get a chance to show his progress until December. He didn't play a defensive snap in Weeks 3 through 13. Three times during that span he was inactive.

As his rookie season unfolded, Williams noticed that people treated him differently. The criticism intensified. The questions, at first at least, piled up. But Williams said he didn't listen to it. He doesn't care what people say about him, he said. He explained that he looked at what he accomplished -- getting drafted in the third round as a cornerback after less than a year of playing the position -- as a source of confidence.

The less he played, though, the more it drove him.

Williams' approach this offseason was to block out the notion that he was competing with Justin Bethel for a starting cornerback job and just focus on himself.

The 24-year-old trained methodically. He knew, at the root of it, the fundamental reason for his struggles as a rookie was that he simply has not played the position long enough. Williams broke his offseason into segments, working on one part of his game at a time while replaying the age-old adage "Rome wasn't built in a day" in his head.

"That's kind of what I'm doing," Williams said. "I'm building something. I can't build it in one day. It's going to take time. It's going to take day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year."

Williams felt like he had the scheme under control. It was, he said, "pretty easy" for him to learn. However, he had trouble with the technique of being a cornerback. When he took the field for OTAs as a rookie he learned that the Cardinals only played off coverage because contact isn't allowed, which makes teaching man-press coverage difficult to do.

He spent hours and days working on his off coverage to get it right.

"My body has been in strange positions that it's never been in before," he said. "So I got to get used to that. That's it for me. Just technique. The better my technique gets the better I'm going to get."

With his technique corrected, Williams has also rebuilt his confidence, to the point where coach Bruce Arians has noticed.

"He knows he belongs," Arians said. "I'm sure last year a lot of times he didn't believe he belonged out there because he was unsure. Now he's pretty sure of himself."

Combine his restored confidence with his improved skill set and Williams is preparing for a new experience this year. He wants to prove to those who doubted and criticized him that they won't be able to do it again. Those, he said, who didn't want his autograph will now want it.

As the Cardinals begin their mandatory minicamp Tuesday, Williams is in a good place.

The game has finally slowed down around him. His technique is better. He's learned how to watch film. He's just more comfortable as a defensive back. He's both calm and confident on and off the field.

"Last year, I was just like, 'What the f---?'" Williams said. "It's a big difference."