TAMPA — After last season, Mike Williams wants to save face. His is disappearing behind a bushy black beard.
But it is not thick enough to hide his talent.
After another solid practice this week, including Williams picking the pocket of rookie safety Mark Barron to turn an interception into a drive-saving completion, Williams was asked if he plans to keep his facial hair.
"It's up to (general manager) Mark Dominik," Williams said. "But he says it's looking like good luck right now, so I'm going to keep it."
Appearances aside, there's no disguising that last season, Williams, 25, didn't look like the player he was in 2010, when the fourth-round draft pick from Syracuse led rookies with 11 touchdown receptions. He caught 65 passes, the same as his rookie year, but for 771 yards, 193 fewer, and three touchdowns.
Bucs receivers coach P.J. Fleck said he expects Williams to bounce back.
"The first words I think about with Mike is his transformation and commitment," Fleck said. "That has a lot to do with (the arrival of free agent receiver) Vincent Jackson. It has a lot to do with him wanting to be great."
Jackson, 29, a two-time Pro Bowl pick with the Chargers who signed a five-year, $55.5 million free agent contract in March, immediately embraced his role as mentor to the Bucs' young wideouts.
Fleck ordered Williams to sit next to Jackson during meetings so he could get a bird's-eye view of his intricate note-taking.
"If you truly want it, there is a price to pay," he said. "And a lot of people will pay the price for a little bit. And when it gets uncomfortable, they'll stop. Mike, when it got uncomfortable, has found a way to break through the barriers that once were there and went to the next step on the mountain. And if keeps doing that, I think he's going to like what he sees at the end."
Williams already is enjoying his view of opposing defenses. In last week's preseason opener, the Dolphins, wary of Jackson's ability to stretch the field, rolled coverage to Jackson's side, sometimes leaving Williams one on one with the cornerback. Once in the Bucs' 20-7 win, Williams took a simple hitch, made cornerback Sean Smith miss and raced 18 yards to set up a touchdown.
"He's been a sponge," Jackson said of Williams. "He's taken to coaching. He's become such a better receiver in the last few months, watching him put in the work and buy in."
At 6 feet 1, 212 pounds, Williams relies on strength more than speed to get separation. Former coaches say he gained weight during the lockout last summer. There is debate about how much Williams weighed, perhaps as much as 218.
Williams disputes that, but there's no denying he wore down last season, averaging two catches for 26.2 yards over the final four games. He also was among the league leaders in dropped passes.
"The lockout killed us last year," Williams said. "We didn't have what we have this offseason, where we're all working with each other, running with each other, sprinting through the line. Instead of everybody going home, we're all up here running and working out."
Williams said he's in the best shape of his life and back to making circus-like catches.
"I remember Mike when he was at Syracuse," said Bucs coach Greg Schiano, previously at Rutgers. "He is a great hand-eye coordination guy. Then he's strong. Those acrobatic catches, you can train hand-eye coordination, but there's a certain level you can reach. This guy, he's been blessed that way."
Can Williams return to his rookie form?
"I want to be at a higher level," he said. "I feel like I'm putting the work in now, watching extra film, knowing what the coverage is, working with Vincent on extra things. I don't want to get to a level I've already been at. I want to exceed that level."
As Williams knows, the difference between success and failure is razor thin.
Rick Stroud can be reached at email@example.com and can be heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.
Locker gets his shot
QB Jake Locker, whom the Titans picked eighth overall in the 2011 draft, will start tonight against the Bucs. "It's great to have the opportunity," he said. Incumbent Matt Hasselbeck started last week, and Locker followed by going 7-of-13 for 80 yards against a mixture of Seattle starters and backups. Coach Mike Munchak said he hopes to make a decision about a No. 1 after this game.