Nearing milestone, Williams has formed identity

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Some time Monday night, the Carolina Panthers' 2006 draft is going to make sense.

There won't be any grand ceremony as the Panthers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an NFC South showdown on "Monday Night Football" (ESPN, 8:30 ET), but there might be an unofficial coming-out party.

Keep an eye on DeAngelo Williams, the little Carolina running back who critics said before the '06 draft and much of the past two seasons was too small and too soft to be much of a factor in the NFL.

Williams (5-9, 217 pounds) is on the verge of putting all that to rest. He needs only 45 yards to reach 1,000 yards rushing for the season, which would be a first for Williams. The Panthers have somehow built a reputation as a running team even though they haven't had a 1,000-yard runner since Stephen Davis in 2003.

In the minds of many, Davis, who carried the Panthers to their only Super Bowl appearance in 2003, remains the prototypical runner for a John Fox offense. But the speedy Williams will never be confused with the bruising Davis, which just goes to show Fox isn't nearly as stubborn or stuck in his ways as many believe.

It just took the coach a little while to figure out what he had in Williams, whom the Panthers took with the 27th overall pick in the 2006 draft. Williams came out of Memphis holding the NCAA record for all-purpose yards (7,573), but you wouldn't have known it if you watched Williams get lost in the shuffle behind DeShaun Foster.

There were flashes of promise here and there, but Williams got only two starts and 265 carries in his first two seasons as Foster got most of the work and produced very ordinary results.

When Foster was let go after last season and the Panthers used their first draft pick on Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart, there was a quick assumption Carolina had already judged Williams a bust. But that was never the case.

If you know anything about Fox, you know he's fiercely loyal, especially to his running backs. He stayed with Davis long after it was obvious his knees had nothing left and with Foster even though Williams had more upside.

In Fox's world, Williams had to wait his turn.

"DeAngelo, I think, has really stepped up his game from last year to this year," Fox said. "Obviously, he's gotten more opportunities. Part of our goal this offseason was to structure ourselves so we could get him more touches and also find another back, and we found Jonathan in the draft. I think DeShaun Foster did a great job here and taught DeAngelo how to be a pro. I think he's kind of taken Jonathan Stewart under his wing and taught him the ropes. They're both fine talents and fine players, and I think they're getting better every week."

Combining Williams with Stewart (584 yards and 127 carries) has turned out to be a tremendous combination for the Panthers. Williams may look like the classic speed guy and Stewart like the classic power back, but don't pigeonhole them.

Williams already has 11 rushing touchdowns this season, one off the franchise record Davis set in 2005. He also has scored at least one touchdown in the last six games to tie the franchise record set by receiver Patrick Jeffers in 1999.

Williams, who became close with Foster, said he had no regrets about playing a small role his first two seasons.

"It wasn't frustrating for me at all," Williams said. "I had the opportunity to share carries with another running back, so it prepared me going into this season."

What's happening this year is actually what the Panthers wanted to happen last year, but circumstances got in the way. When the Panthers hired Jeff Davidson to replace Dan Henning as the offensive coordinator after the 2006 season, they wanted Williams to become the dominant back in the tandem with Foster.

But Davidson's offense never really had a chance to get established in 2007 when quarterback Jake Delhomme went out with an elbow injury in the third game. While rotating quarterbacks Vinny Testaverde, David Carr and Matt Moore, the Panthers stayed conservative and stayed with Foster most of the time.

Williams may never fit the classic definition of a feature back who gets 25 carries a game. But that's not what Williams or the Panthers really want or need.

"I can't say yes and I can't say no based on the fact that the system I'm in right now is a very good position based on the fact that we're winning and we're being productive all at the same time," Williams said. "I couldn't ask for anything more."

Stewart's going to get his share of carries. But Williams is getting more, and that's working out just fine for the Panthers. With Delhomme healthy again and receiver Steve Smith making big plays, the Panthers are looking a little bit like their Super Bowl team.

The defense has played well most of the season, but more than anything, the Panthers are 9-3 and playing for first place in the NFC South because they're able to run the ball again.

"The identity of this team?" Williams said. "We like to think of ourselves as a balanced team. We pass the ball when we need to. We try to run the ball when we can. We just basically take what the defense gives us, nothing more and nothing less."

Maybe a little bit more. Maybe a balanced team with its first 1,000-yard runner in five years.