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2 New Orleans Saints Ricky Williams is primed to run wild after getting a not-so-subtle message

Ricky Williams, the Saints' dreadlocked, oft-knocked running
back, knows what you were thinking on draft day, and if it's any
consolation, he was thinking the same thing. On April 21 Williams
was kicking back on the couch at his San Diego beach house,
playing a baseball video game on his TV when he decided to do
some channel surfing. He reached for his remote control and
stopped cold on ESPN: The Saints were on the clock, preparing to
make their first-round draft choice.

When Paul Tagliabue announced New Orleans's selection of
Mississippi halfback Deuce McAllister with the 23rd pick,
Williams was as stunned as the rest of the football world. The
way he has responded to that selection has generated unbridled
optimism among the rejuvenated Saints, who hope to use their
playoff victory last December--the first in franchise history--as a
springboard to bigger and better things. On draft day, however,
Williams was as unclear about what the future held as WebVan.

"It was kind of shocking," Williams says. "I thought we'd take a
receiver or a defensive back, but a running back? No way. I just
sat there saying, 'Huh?' I'm not going to lie: It was a little
disturbing. Then [analyst] Joe Thiesmann kept calling me 'stupid'
on TV, which didn't help. I was upset and, most of all,

Williams turned off the television and telephones, opened his
patio doors and stepped out onto the South Mission Beach
boardwalk. Minutes later he was cruising through Point Loma on
his Schwinn GT mountain bike, pondering the ramifications of the
pick. Had he just lost his starting job, despite averaging 100
rushing yards per game in 2000? Was New Orleans about to get rid
of him? Was the organization trying to send him a message?

The answers, it turns out, were no, no and maybe. Whatever
general manager Randy Mueller's intent in drafting McAllister,
Williams reacted the way his employers hoped he would: He pedaled
the bike to the health club where he'd been working out
regularly, showed up for the following week's minicamp in
terrific shape and reminded his coaches and teammates why, when
healthy, he's one of the NFL's most dangerous running backs.

"The guy was ripped, huge and ready to rumble," says Kyle Turley,
the Saints' All-Pro right tackle. "On the first play he took a
handoff and blasted up the middle, and even the coaches were,
like, All right, we'll keep our mouths shut about Ricky from now
on and let him do his thing." Center Jerry Fontenot says Williams
"looked better than I'd ever seen him, even in college."

Williams credits Jim Haslett, New Orleans's popular second-year
coach, with having eased his mind by giving him a vote of
confidence upon his arrival at minicamp. "I like Ricky," Haslett
says. "I have no problem with the guy. He's been working his butt
off, and I think he's a great back."

One source in the Saints' organization says the would-be
competition between Williams and McAllister was "not even close,"
meaning McAllister is likely to be used primarily as a
change-of-pace substitute and slot receiver in third-down
formations. There's one scenario in which Deuce will become the
New Orleans ace: if Williams can't stay healthy, which has been
the case frequently during his first two seasons. Injuries
limited him to 12 games and 884 yards as a rookie, and he had
just reached the 1,000-yard plateau in the Saints' 10th game last
November when a broken left ankle ended his regular season.
Though that injury was flukish, Williams shies away from contact
the way Jesse Jackson ducks television cameras. "The dude is a
head-buster," star New Orleans wideout Joe Horn says of Williams,
"and that's probably why he gets hurt. He runs over people and
doesn't try to avoid anyone--and I love that attitude."

Only four NFL backs have exceeded 2,000 yards in a season, but
Turley says there's a feeling among the Saints that Williams can
reach that level in 2001. "The guy is a monster," Turley says.
"He's a f------ bowling ball, and people are flat-out afraid of
him. If you told me he'd definitely stay healthy, I'd be picking
out the size of my ring."

That's not totally far-fetched. New Orleans has a fast, physical
defense, a burgeoning star in third-year quarterback Aaron
Brooks and a standout offensive line anchored by the
ultra-aggressive Turley and the well-rounded William Roaf,
perhaps the league's best tackle tandem. "Our line is so
incredible and dominates so many people that my job is easy,"
Williams says. "Then, when I punish people, it sends a message
that when you play us, it's going to hurt. I don't think I could
be less physical even if I wanted to."


COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The Saints think Williams, who came to camp in terrific shape, can gain 2,000 yards this season.


an opposing team's scout sizes up the Saints

"I know people think they'll level off after last year, but I'm
not one of them. These guys are legit and will get better. I
don't see a lot of peaks and valleys, and they're very physical
in addition to being mentally tough, like their coach. Plus,
they've got a lot of talent.... Aaron Brooks has remarkable
poise and composure. He completed a lot of third-down passes
last year, which is unusual for a young guy, and he didn't go
through the normal growing pains of a first-year starter.... I
wouldn't write off Ricky Williams--he's too good. He's made
dominant runs in every game he's played, and the drafting of
Deuce McAllister will wake him up. It wouldn't shock me if
Williams has a great year. McAllister has speed, but he's a
straight-line runner who runs too upright--that's why he gets
hurt so much. Terrelle Smith is a good blocker, and I love that
line, especially the tackles, Kyle Turley and Willie Roaf....
Joe Horn won't get as many balls now that they have Albert
Connell, a big, strong guy who can get downfield and go
underneath and catch the ball in traffic. But Connell's a little
erratic, and they'll have to make sure his head's on
straight.... Joe Johnson and Darren Howard are terrific pass
rushers; Norman Hand is a big, stout, run-stuffer; and La'Roi
Glover is like John Randle. It's a good thing their front is so
strong because their linebackers are nothing special. All the
guys in the secondary are good competitors, but the depth back
there is questionable."


Sept. 9 at Buffalo
23 Open date
30 at N.Y. Giants
14 at Carolina
28 at St. Louis
Nov. 4 N.Y. JETS
11 at San Francisco
25 at New England
9 at Atlanta
17 ST. LOUIS (Mon.)
23 at Tampa Bay

NFL rank: 16 (tie)
Opponents' 2000 winning percentage: .496
Games against playoff teams: 6

PROJECTED LINEUP with 2000 statistics

COACH: Jim Haslett; second season with New Orleans (10-6 in NFL)
2000 RECORD: 10-6 (first in NFC West)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 8/14/10; defense 10/10/8


QB Aaron Brooks 42 194 att. 113 comp. 58.2% 1,514 yds.
9 TDs 6 int. 85.7 rtg.

RB Ricky Williams 36 248 att. 1,000 yds. 4.0 avg. 44 rec.
409 yds. 9.3 avg. 9 TDs

RB Deuce McAllister 184 159 att. 767 yds. 4.8 avg. 18 rec.
(R)[N] 190 yds. 10.6 avg. 16 TDs

FB Terrelle Smith 281 29 att. 131 yds. 4.5 avg. 12 rec.
65 yds. 5.4 avg. 0 TDs



WR Joe Horn 51 94 rec. 1,340 yds. 8 TDs
WR Albert Connell[N] 86 39 rec. 762 yds. 3 TDs
WR Willie Jackson 194 37 rec. 523 yds. 6 TDs
TE Cam Cleeland[1] 176 26 rec. 325 yds. 1 TD
K John Carney[N] 233 27/27 XPs 18/25 FGs 81 pts.
PR Deuce McAllister(R)[N] 184 17 ret. 11.2 avg. 1 TD
KR Deuce McAllister(R)[N] 184 20 ret. 17.0 avg. 0 TDs

LT William Roaf 6'5" 312 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Wally Williams 6'2" 321 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Jerry Fontenot 6'3" 300 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Chris Naeole 6'3" 313 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Kyle Turley 6'5" 300 lbs. 16 games 16 starts


LE Darren Howard 51 tackles 11 sacks
LT Norman Hand 53 tackles 3 sacks
RT La'Roi Glover 65 tackles 17 sacks
RE Joe Johnson 47 tackles 12 sacks
OLB Keith Mitchell 85 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
MLB Charlie Clemons[1] 44 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Darrin Smith 92 tackles 2 sacks

CB Kevin Mathis 77 tackles 1 int.
SS Sammy Knight 101 tackles 5 int.
FS Jay Bellamy[N] 87 tackles 4 int.
CB Fred Weary 52 tackles 2 int.
P Toby Gowin 74 punts 41.1 avg.

[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 119)
[1]1999 Statistics

"Connell is a big, strong guy who can go underneath and catch
the ball in traffic."