Column: Williams key to solving passing woes

David Nelson

In case Minnesota fans needed reminding during Thursday night’s season opener against Eastern Illinois, Maxx Williams is still an athletic freak.

In his first action since the Texas Bowl, the redshirt sophomore caught a Mitch Leidner pass, turned up field, leap-frogged over two diving Panthers and shouldered into a defender on his way to a 25-yard gain.

The only issue is that this play came toward the end of the second quarter, marking the first time Williams had been targeted all game.

In fact, the 6-foot-4-inch Waconia, Minn., product received only two more looks after that. One of those gained 32 yards.

For a player who Big Ten Network analyst and former Gophers head coach Glen Mason tweeted “might just be the best [tight end] in [the] Big Ten,” three targets in one game is unacceptable.

And if the Gophers have any hope of making some noise in the Big Ten this season, they’ll make sure that doesn’t happen again.

Look no further than the way Minnesota began its 2014 season: with three consecutive drives ending with no points on the board.

Until Williams’ 25-yard scamper at the end of the second quarter, Minnesota’s offense hadn’t produced a play that surpassed 12 yards.

The simple fact is that Williams is a playmaker and one Minnesota will depend on if it hopes to become a larger threat throwing the ball this season.

Williams burst onto the scene in his first season as a reliable pass-catcher and an invaluable goal-line threat.

In the last year’s season opener, his lone reception was a diving touchdown grab that gave the Gophers a lead against UNLV.

And over the course of that season, Williams averaged more than 16 yards per game, leading the Gophers in overall receiving yards.

In short, the budding star is supremely talented and flashed far too much promise to be shorted looks during the first game of the season.

Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in passing offense last season, but Williams can help the Gophers improve.

In seven of the Gophers’ games last season, the tight end recorded a reception of 20 or more yards. In five of those games, Minnesota emerged victorious.

The pattern stayed true on Thursday as the Gophers beat Eastern Illinois 42-20.

But Minnesota couldn’t do much against the Panthers early on. When the Gophers’ offense stalls, they’ll need to make sure the ball gets to Williams’ sure hands.

Three targets in one game isn’t nearly enough for a player of Williams’ caliber or potential.

So get him the ball, and get out of his way.