EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Late in the first quarter of Friday night's preseason loss, New York Giants running back Andre Williams caught a swing pass from Eli Manning and went 16 yards with it. That doesn't sound remarkable on its face (or outside the context of the minimal accomplishments of the Giants' first-team offense otherwise in the game). But Williams catching a pass is not something he or the Giants take for granted.
"I would probably say, at Boston College or when he first got here, that would probably have been a dropped pass," Giants running backs coach Craig Johnson said Sunday. "I think he's worked really hard on his hands."
Williams stayed after every practice last year, catching passes from a JUGS machine. He hated that he had so much trouble catching the ball. He recognized that he had to learn to do it better. He sought advice from wide receivers Victor Cruz and Odell Beckham Jr. on how to position his hands. He trained with people throwing him tennis balls, racquetballs, ping-pong balls, and trying to catch them with two or three fingers. He went to sports psychologists for help.
So when he catches a swing pass in a preseason game, excuse Williams for taking a moment to appreciate what went into it.
"I wouldn't say it's all the way natural yet," Williams said. "My mind has just calmed down in terms of catching the ball, to the point where it's just like anything else now. I make a point to do my mental push-ups just like I do my physical push-ups and say, 'To drop the ball is not a big deal, but to catch it is a lot of fun.' And I repeat that to myself every day, as many times as I can."
The result, Williams says, is that he feels less stressed about catching the ball in situations that would have stressed him out. As Johnson explained, this ball Williams caught Friday wasn't easy. Williams was not looking at Manning when the ball was thrown, so he had to turn and immediately locate the ball in the air in order to catch it. Johnson trains Williams on that catch before games, firing passes at him from four and five feet away while he's not looking, and to see it pay off in a game was fun.
"You like that as a coach," Johnson said. "When your drill carries over to the field."
For Williams, a ton of off-field work is carrying over to the field. He said one of the sports psychologists with whom he worked, Dr. Bill Thierfelder of Charlotte, tapped into his spiritual side to teach him how to be "present in the moment" -- a concept that jives with the "mindfulness" concepts that Giants coach Tom Coughlin is trying to drive home to his team this offseason. Coughlin's message has been, "Be where your feet are. If you're in practice, be at practice. If you're in a meeting room, be in the meeting." Don't be worried about the next thing or what you have to do later today or tomorrow. Maintain focus on the now, and the task at hand.
"I guess that's the point, that you can't just say, 'All right, sports is about the physical and if you're born with the right genetics or if you run enough miles on the treadmill or if you do this, you're going to be the best at it'," Williams said. "It's really about being able to align your physical capabilities with your mental and spiritual capabilities as well."
Williams has always been a thoughtful, somewhat philosophical player. But the Giants considered him a fourth-round steal last year due to his athletic abilities. He led the NCAA in rushing yards in 2013, his final year at Boston College, and he led the Giants in rushing as a rookie due to Rashad Jennings' injuries. Williams and Jennings are basically splitting first-team reps in practice this year in camp, with newly signed Shane Vereen mixing in as well. And it's not out of the question that Williams could emerge as the No. 1 back in the Giants' offense if his improvements take hold and blossom.
"He has tirelessly worked on the stuff he needed to work on," Johnson said. "And he is walking around with the confidence of a guy that’s played and knows that he can get it done on this field."