TAMPA — He may wear No. 24, but Tampa Bay running back Carnell Williams might as well wear a question mark on his jersey. It would be symbolic of the back's status.
Nearly nine months removed from injuring the patellar tendon in his right knee, Williams ran on his own during the Buccaneers' second day of mandatory mini-camp at Raymond James Stadium.
Williams is now running full sprints and even full speed on the stairs that cut through the lower seating bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden called Williams' recovery so far "amazing" and compared his current workout routine to that of fictional boxer Rocky Balboa.
"He's putting himself through an unbelievable workout routine and I've never seen anything like it," Gruden said. "This is very important to him."
Williams has contended all offseason that he would be ready to play in the regular season. But the next hurdle ahead is training camp. When camp starts at Walt Disney World in July, Williams will be 10 months out from an injury that some doctors considered career threatening.
There is reason for optimism. But Williams' presence at mini-camp — while he is running, he is not participating in drills with the team — doesn't mean he'll be ready to don pads and a helmet in July, Gruden said.
"He's ready to go now if you ask him," Gruden said. "He's really putting some good tape together in individual workouts. He's not allowed to be a part of the team activity at this point, but the explosive movement appears to be coming back, the change of direction, the confidence and the stamina. All those things, day after day after day, that a running back has to do are coming to him. That's what's really exciting. He doesn't appear to have any setbacks at this point. I just keep my fingers crossed and hope it continues because it's exciting, it really is exciting."
The Bucs, most specifically Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen have been reluctant to put a timetable on Williams' availability to the team. And, since he has not been cleared to practice, there's a chance he could go to training camp, fail a physical and be placed on the physically unable to perform list. While that would disappoint Williams and prevent his return until at least Week 7 of the season, it would allow him a full year to recover from the injury before taking the field.
It would also allow the Bucs to work in other cogs in their running game. Earnest Graham — who is at this week's mini-camp after sitting out all of the team's voluntary activities — is considered the starter right now, with veterans Michael Bennett and Warrick Dunn backing him up. The Bucs also have rookie Cory Boyd and second-year back Kenneth Darby.
And the Bucs have locked up fullback B.J. Askew in a long-term deal and appear to be utilizing him more in passing formations this week.
But it's clear Williams is getting closer to the playing field, and that prospect has Gruden excited.
"He's been asking to come out here, I tell you, since this program started in April," Williams said. "He doesn't want to miss a rep."
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for the Charlotte Sun-Herald and Bucsblitz.com.