Panthers' Williams painting promising picture for 2008

Just about every weekend this offseason, DeAngelo Williams has put on his football cleats and a helmet and spent hours dodging shots.

We're not talking would-be tacklers. We're talking paintballs.

"I'm jumping into bunkers and diving behind sandbags,'' the Carolina Panthers running back said. "It's almost like a real-life battlefield.''

Williams, who is about to enter his third and most important season with the Panthers, started playing paintball with some teammates and friends last offseason, but it's become a passion in recent months. Williams is even planning a paintball
tournament for late May in Waxhaw, N.C.

"I got started because a bunch of guys were going out to play and they asked me to come along,'' Williams said. "I was like, 'Oh, I've played paintball a lot,' even though I really hadn't. I got out there and I got hooked. You can shoot people without getting hurt and you can play under all sorts of different scenarios, like USA against the terrorists or find the bomb and disarm the bomb, and it makes it a lot more interesting and fun.''

Several other Panthers play on a semi-regular basis, but Williams, who wears his football shoes because he believes they give him better traction, has become the most devout. He now claims to be the best paintball player on Carolina's roster.

"Last year, I wasn't,'' Williams said. "David Carr was very good. Actually, David Carr was just sick at paintball.''

Carr made a lot of Carolina fans sick when he was thrown into the starting quarterback role last season after Jake Delhomme went down with an elbow injury, and that's a major reason why the Panthers went a disappointing 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the second straight year. Carr was released after last season and has landed as a backup with the New York Giants.

Carr's departure might have elevated Williams' status on the paintball field, but the Panthers are hoping their first-round pick from 2006 can take a huge step forward on the football field.

After spending two years as a backup to close friend DeShaun Foster, Williams appears to be ticketed to become Carolina's feature back. There's been speculation the Panthers might take a running back early in the draft. But fans who have been calling for Williams to get more carries for two years are likely to get their wish even if that scenario plays out.

Coach John Fox is a big believer in a two-running back system and he always has deferred to the veteran as the starter. He stuck with Stephen Davis in that role long after it became obvious Foster was playing better. Fox also stuck with Foster last season even though the Panthers weren't running the ball with any consistent success and Williams was showing flashes of explosiveness when he did get to carry.

"It wouldn't bother me at all if they do draft a running back,'' Williams said. "Every year, they're going to bring in new players. It's all about productivity and, if I'm productive, I'll get my chances.''

After a college career at Memphis, where he set NCAA career records for most all-purpose yards (7,573) and 100-yard rushing games (34), Williams hasn't had as many chances as many would have liked to see. He carried 121 times for 501 yards and one touchdown as a rookie and 144 times for 717 yards and four touchdowns last season.

The opportunities almost certainly will increase, but Williams, 5-foot-9 and 217 pounds, still needs to show he can handle the load as a feature back. Offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson brought a new scheme (heavy on zone blocking in the running game) when he joined the Panthers before last season.

But that system never really took hold as Delhomme went down and the Panthers turned to Carr and, later, senior citizen Vinny Testaverde and undrafted rookie Matt Moore. The ground game suffered almost as much as the passing game.

"There were eight or nine guys in the box on every play because everybody knew we were running the ball,'' Williams said. "I remember games when the safeties didn't drop back at all and that made it tough. But we're going to have Jake back now and that's going to make a big difference. We got Muhsin Muhammad, who's one of the best blocking wide receivers in the league and we've made some changes on the offensive line. I think this running game has a lot of potential.''

But whether that potential translates into production will depend largely on Williams. In theory, his slashing style should fit perfectly with the zone-blocking scheme and his speed should make him a receiving threat out of the backfield.

"I think I've always worked hard in the offseason, but I'm working harder this year to prepare for whatever role they want me in,'' Williams said. "I'm pushing myself to be on the brink of being tired and working on still performing at a high level when I am tired.''

That's the goal during workouts during the week. The weekends bring a little relaxation with paintball. But Williams said the time playing paintball isn't all about having fun. He said paintball can help him with football in several ways.

"Obviously, you have to be in pretty good shape to be good at it, and you're sometimes making cuts like you make on the football field,'' Williams said. "I think it also helps with your depth perception. But, more than anything, I think paintball helps you focus. You have to be focused so you don't get shot.''

Williams is also a big movie buff and the translation of paintball skills to football skills reminds him of the line in "Dodgeball'' when players, standing at a busy intersection, are told, "If you can dodge traffic, you can dodge a dodge ball."

Maybe all the time on the paintball fields will help Williams dodge tacklers in the fall. If it does, Carolina's running game won't go splat.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com