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The Ravens have a wide receiver room with star potential. Keith Williams has the ‘magic’ that can help unlock it.

Keyan Williams doesn’t know where his father finds the inspiration, how someone could relate tomato harvesting to game-breaking catches, or Bruce Lee quotes to route-running approaches. But obsession leaves little room for rationality, and Keith Williams, it can be safely said, is obsessed with wide receiver play.

Keyan offers an example. He’s not sure the Ravens’ new pass game specialist, a mentor to NFL stars, has ventured down this particular rabbit hole. But it sounds like something he might analogize, so he goes with it anyway. Say Keith reads that a tiger has 100 teeth. (In reality, the big cats have just 30 when fully grown.) He might spend the next three hours deep-diving into the subject, Keyan says, finding some link to the position he coaches, to the vocation he can’t stop thinking about.

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“I have no idea how he does it. I have no idea why he does it,” said Keyan, a graduate assistant at Tulane, where he works with — who else? — wide receivers. Earlier in a phone interview, he’d provided the most likely explanation: “My dad probably thinks about wideout play more than any single coach in the world right now.”

All of which makes him, in one sense, an ideal fit in Baltimore, where the Ravens in recent years have invested more in young wide receivers than any other NFL team, where Ravens die-hards have filled more hours of sports talk radio with woebegone comments on their wideouts than any other fan base. The team has had just two wide receivers in franchise history named to the Pro Bowl, both times as returners (Jermaine Lewis and Jacoby Jones); Williams helped coach two All-Pro wideouts just last season (Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill).

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With the Ravens’ season opener slowly approaching and Super Bowl hopes building, his arrival and impact have been heralded this spring by players, coaches and analysts alike. Sammy Watkins called the Ravens’ revamped coaching framework, with Williams and Tee Martin working together, “one of the best situations that any young wide receiver or any receiver can be in.” Martin, a first-year wide receivers coach who got to know Williams during his days as a college assistant, called head coach John Harbaugh’s approach “outside the box” and “ahead of the game.”

This week’s mandatory minicamp, which runs from Tuesday to Wednesday in Owings Mills, will be another measuring stick for a wide receiver room that finished last in the league last season in receiving yards and catches. Other than a brief interview on the team’s website, Williams hasn’t been made available to the media since his surprising February hire. His results, for now, will have to speak for themselves. Inside and outside team circles, though, they inspire confidence.

Ravens pass game specialist Keith Williams talks with wide receiver Devin Duvernay (13) during OTAs last Tuesday. Williams worked last season as a personal coach for All-Pro wideouts Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill.
Ravens pass game specialist Keith Williams talks with wide receiver Devin Duvernay (13) during OTAs last Tuesday. Williams worked last season as a personal coach for All-Pro wideouts Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“Why other people in college football or the NFL couldn’t see the talent … is mind-boggling to me,” said Keyshawn Johnson, a former Pro Bowl wide receiver and current ESPN analyst on “Keyshawn, JWill and Zubin” and the network’s NFL shows. Johnson got to know Williams through his son, Keyshawn Jr., whom Williams coached at Nebraska.

“The Baltimore Ravens and Harbaugh, I’ve got to tip my hat to them. They got it right. Their receiving corps is going to be 20 times better than it was in the past, and that’s not taking anything away from Coach [David] Culley, because Coach Culley did an amazing job [as wide receivers coach] for many years in the NFL. But this is different.”

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There might not be a better descriptor for Williams’ methods, or for his path to Baltimore. A standout wide receiver and track and field champion at San Diego State, Williams played in the NFL, Canadian Football League and World League of American Football before transitioning to coaching in 2000, first as a wide receivers coach for Solano College’s now-defunct junior-college program.

In 2015, he was hired as Nebraska’s wide receivers coach, where he coached his son, Keyan, and established himself as one of the country’s better recruiters. But a month after Cornhuskers head coach Mike Riley was fired in November 2017, Williams was out of a job, Riley’s staff purged by new coach Scott Frost.

Williams didn’t take a new gig or move out of Nebraska. He just kept coaching receivers. His first personal client had been James Jones, the longtime Green Bay Packer, whom he’d first coached at San Jose State. He later added Adams, the Packers star who’s widely considered one of the NFL’s best route runners, and whom he’d overlapped with briefly while coaching at Fresno State. Hill enlisted Williams’ help in 2018, the summer before he finished fourth in the NFL in receiving yards and earned All-Pro honors as a receiver.

Somewhere along the way, word of Williams’ talents reached Baltimore. With the Houston Texans hiring Culley as their head coach in January, Harbaugh got “a little creative” in finding a replacement, he said in March. When he asked Martin about his interest in joining the Ravens’ staff, Harbaugh first asked about his comfort with possibly working with Williams. “You’re about to get the best of both worlds,” Martin recalled telling Harbaugh.

Keith Williams participates during OTAs last Tuesday. In one offseason, he's gone from coaching a high school-age seven-on-seven team, Nebraska Elite, to working with three first-round picks with the Ravens.
Keith Williams participates during OTAs last Tuesday. In one offseason, he's gone from coaching a high school-age seven-on-seven team, Nebraska Elite, to working with three first-round picks with the Ravens. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Williams, who described Harbaugh’s initial call as being “out of the blue,” interviewed for the newly created position. When the job offer came, “I jumped on it,” he told the team website. “I was very happy — more for my mom,” Keyan Williams joked, “because he was at home a little bit more than he usually is.”

In one offseason, Keith Williams had gone from coaching a high school-age seven-on-seven team, Nebraska Elite, to working with three first-round picks — Watkins, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and, soon, rookie Rashod Bateman — and seven other wide receivers age 24 or younger.

“Keith was another guy that was just, in a different kind of way, really exceptional,” Harbaugh said in March. “He’s been coaching the best wide receivers in the league. In the offseason, they go to him. They go to Omaha [Nebraska], of all places, to find him to work on route-running, OK? That should tell you something.”

Williams has said he likes “weird” receivers, players so committed to the next level that they’re willing to embrace new strategies of reaching it. In Williams, players have a coach whose ability, his son acknowledges, is partly due to his own weirdness.

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As a personal wide receivers coach, Williams had players catch a soccer ball before a football, the better to simulate his preferred hand placement and approach. (Over the Ravens’ rookie minicamp and three practices in organized team activities, soccer balls have not made an appearance.) He called all his receivers, the young and the old, “nephew,” a term of endearment.

At Nebraska, he told wide receivers that, when tracking deep shots, they should “fall in love with the ball.” In a workout with Watkins and others, he invoked martial-arts legend Bruce Lee in his description of how receivers should move and cut: “Be like water. Imagine water in a break.” In a text to wide receiver Nelson Agholor he shared on his popular @wideouts Twitter account, he wrote: “Have a farmers mentality — whatever is out there bring it back — one tomato or a whole bucket.”

“I don’t look at it as a guru,” Johnson said of Williams in an interview. “I look at it as somebody who knows the details about the position because he played the position. And I look at it as far as knowing what they’re supposed to look like and what they’re supposed to do. To me, that’s the magic of a coach: When you can take unfinished product, or product that’s less than what others think it should be, and shape it and mold it into something that everybody wants. To me, that’s a coach.”

Williams’ teachings are rooted in fundamentals, most notably a three-phase approach to route-running. First, attack vertical, whether the cornerback is in press coverage or 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. “Try to make him think it’s a go route, just like everybody talks about,” Keyan Williams said.

Williams, talking with Duvernay during OTAs last Tuesday, was Nebraska's wide receivers coach from 2015 to 2017.
Williams, talking with Duvernay during OTAs last Tuesday, was Nebraska's wide receivers coach from 2015 to 2017. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

The next phase: violent hips. Imagine a point guard in his defensive stance, Keyan said. In a split-second, like a wide receiver entering his break, he’s asked to change directions fluidly. Keith doesn’t necessarily prescribe steps in footwork, because what works for a 5-foot-9 jitterbug might not work for a 6-5 powerhouse. Economy of movement is more important.

Finally, no energy leaks. By which Keith means: Get out of the break, attack the ball and make the catch.

Just how invested is he in the whole process? At Nebraska, Keyan said, his father worked with the team’s “biomechanical guys” to scrutinize how his receivers might better get into and out of their breaks, including specific weightlifting exercises. He’s looked into what the GPS tracking devices that many high-level athletes wear can reveal about route velocities and the force receivers apply in their movements.

“He can take a guy that runs a 4.8 [40-yard dash] and make sure he can separate from guys, get open and catch balls,” Watkins said in April. “I think that’s the most critical thing with the wide receivers that are going to be in the room.”

As the Ravens’ development under Keith Williams continues, his role on the team’s staff has come into focus. When Harbaugh was asked about Williams in March, he said Williams would “be involved with all the route-running,” noting that “wide receivers are a big part of that, specifically.”

But at practice, his time has been seemingly undivided. While tight end Mark Andrews said last week that Williams and Martin have helped with “little things here and there,” Williams has largely functioned as a second wide receivers coach, a high-energy foil to the jocular Martin, a puff of hair dangling from his chin as mid-drill reminders roll out as if they’re on a conveyor belt.

“He’s really into the techniques, drill work, things of that nature,” Martin said earlier this month. “I come in as the guy who’s coaching the wide receivers, doing the installations and also technique and all those things as well. I think we work together. I’m learning from him. He’s learning from me. It’s a great working relationship.”

Keyan Williams called his father a man of faith, someone who would go wherever he felt he was needed. Despite their similar job descriptions, they don’t talk much football, he said. What he grew to appreciate about his father — what ultimately compelled Keyan to follow him into coaching — was not what he taught his players about football. Rather, it was the life lessons he instilled, he said, the love they shared.

At San Diego State, Keyan said, Keith and his friends on the football team came up with a philosophy: Wideouts 4 Life. It wasn’t so much a position group as it was a fraternity. A certain mentality was required to play out wide, he believed. In Baltimore, Keyan said his father has found a team willing to embrace his way of life, and all the prisms through which he sees it.

“I know he loves it up there,” Keyan said. “He’s got young guys. They’re all eager to learn. That’s one thing that’s big with him: eager to learn. And from what he told me, he loves it. I know he loves it way more than what he was doing last June. I can tell you that.”

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