THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Williams keeps it on the inside

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / July 30, 2008

FOXBOROUGH - Tank Williams graduated from Stanford with a degree in political science. Yesterday, he applied that knowledge like a politician, artfully dodging and deflecting questions about his position.

Is he a safety or a linebacker?

No matter how reporters phrased questions, tried to get him to take a stand on where he preferred to line up, or pointed out he was spending all his time running through drills with the linebackers, Williams stayed on message like a presidential hopeful, spouting the Patriots (Way) party line: He's happy to line up wherever the team puts him.

"I just enjoy playing, so as long as I'm on the field having an opportunity to go out there and make plays whether it's at safety, linebacker, or whatever else you want to call it, I'm fine with it," he said.

Officially, Williams is a safety, according to rosters handed out at training camp, but the free agent pickup has been on the field at inside linebacker next to Tedy Bruschi an awful lot.

The Patriots' problems plugging inside linebackers into their 3-4 defense have been well-documented. The 6-foot-2-inch, 223-pound Williams, who is entering his seventh NFL season, presents an interesting option. The team is shallow at the position with the primary contenders to play alongside Bruschi being rookie first-round pick Jerod Mayo and New York Jets defector Victor Hobson, who played outside linebacker in a 3-4 last season.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is getting creative in attempting to get more athletic and faster on defense, and one way to do that inside is to employ the 28-year-old Williams as a linebacker. Last season, the Patriots used safety Rodney Harrison as a linebacker in a six-defensive back set to put more speed on the field and increase their coverage capability.

In six previous seasons, four with the Tennessee Titans and the last two with the Minnesota Vikings, Williams started 59 of his 70 games, all at safety.

Williams said his former teams used him close to the line of scrimmage, so he's used to playing in the box, and with a name like Tank, hitting shouldn't be a problem.

"It's fun. It gets you up close to the line, and it gets you in there in the mix with the run and the pass and you get to blitz a little bit too, so I enjoy it," said Williams.

Going back to his days at Stanford, Williams played linebacker in a pinch under then-coach Tyrone Willingham, rotating from free safety to linebacker from play to play.

Bruschi, the undisputed doyen of the Patriots' linebacking corps, said that even he's had to adjust to having a player with a number in the 20s - Williams wears 26, a defensive back's number - beside him. He said Williams has approached the assignment with a great attitude.

"I mean, he's never done this before, so he's learning," said Bruschi. "I think it's different for him, taking on guards some times at that type of level. He's used to the second-level situation where he has a little bit more space, but surprisingly he's accepted it all, and he's done a good job with it, just doing the best he can. He's still with the first group, working hard."

With Williams's size, he'd be an ideal linebacker for teams such as Indianapolis that use the Tampa-2 system. The big, bruising safeties that Williams grew up idolizing, like Steve Atwater, have become an NFL anachronism, along the lines of gas-guzzling SUVs. Most of the game's top safeties now - Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens, Bob Sanders of the Colts, Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers - are just as capable of playing center field as they are of delivering blows in the box.

"It's definitely a learning curve, but I just had to come in and apply myself," said Williams. "Just train my mind to think a little bit differently when I'm playing [linebacker].

"When it all comes down to it, it's a new defense, so it's just like anything else, you're coming in learning a new defense, learning a new scheme."

Williams may have played politician on how the Patriots use him, but he was frank about wanting to play. He started the first 57 NFL games he played in from 2002-05 in Tennessee before signing with the Vikings. He missed the entire 2006 season after suffering a fractured left kneecap during training camp. Last season with Minnesota, he played in 13 games with two starts and finished with 18 tackles.

But the question remained for Williams. If you make the team, will the Patriots list you at safety or linebacker, or both?

"I'm not sure," he said. "I'm not sure at all, as long as I'm on the roster, and it has me doing something helping this team, I don't really care what it says."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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