Making ends meet
Strangers until today, Texans' Williams, Panthers' Peppers linked by more than position
By MEGAN MANFULL
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - With the Texans' Mario Williams back in his home state of North Carolina today, family and friends will be scattered throughout Bank of America Stadium.
Many of those who used to follow him at North Carolina State - and even at Richlands High School - will see him play in the NFL for the first time.
There also will be one new set of eyes fixed on Williams. Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers will be watching to see what it is about Williams that stirs up so much controversy and excitement. He'll also try to see why so many people link the two defensive ends and North Carolina natives - Peppers was an all-state player at Southern Nash High School in Bailey, N.C., and an All-American at North Carolina - even though they have never met.
"We don't really get too many of y'all's games up here, so I haven't really seen a lot of film on him," said Peppers, who is 6-7 and 283 pounds. "But from what I hear about him, I hear he's a good kid and he can play."
Peppers plans to make his own judgment when the Texans (1-0) face the Panthers (1-0). As for Williams, he knows what to expect from Peppers. He has been compared to the three-time Pro Bowler for years, and he grew up following Peppers, who is a legend around the state.
"Him being at (North) Carolina and making plays and doing what he did there, that's all you heard about," said the 6-7, 291-pound Williams. "Especially in North Carolina, that's all you heard about was Julius. Now that he has been playing for the Panthers, it's the same thing. He is still a playmaker; he is still doing things. He is a force to be reckoned with."
Williams rose to success in the state a little more quietly than Peppers, 27, who also played basketball for two years at North Carolina and even participated in the 2000 Final Four.
When people started talking about Williams, Peppers became the constant measuring stick.
And the comparisons remain.
Even the Texans viewed Williams as a new, younger version of Peppers when in 2006 they drafted him No. 1 overall ahead of Vince Young and Reggie Bush.
"I think there are a lot of similarities," Texans owner Bob McNair said. "Our people felt that he can be another Julius Peppers. I think (Williams) has a chance of being an outstanding player, and that's what we hope for."
That potential was evident Sunday, when Williams had his best outing as a pro, collecting two sacks, one fumble recovery, one touchdown, five tackles and three passes defensed. He earned NFL defensive player of the week honors for the first time in his career.
The Texans aren't expecting an outing like that every week. But they do want to see consistency from Williams. If he is able to be disruptive on the defensive line, plays should open up for the other linemen.
"Defense is not like offense," Texans defensive end Earl Cochran said. "Offense, you get the ball; you have plays set up for you. On defense, they can run away from you or whatever. For a defensive guy to have a game like he had was outstanding. But this week, they might double-team him or run away from him. So it could be hard."
The Panthers were 1-15 in 2001 - the year before Peppers was drafted No. 2 overall. In his first season, Carolina finished 7-9. In his second, the Panthers were 11-5 and celebrated their first winning season since 1996.
The Texans went from 2-14 before Williams' arrival to 6-10 in his rookie campaign. If he can help lead the team to its first winning season this year, the comparisons to Peppers will continue.
"I can't really compare myself to another player or to Julius," Williams, 22, said. "All I can say is that obviously he is a great player. Maybe one day, if I'm at that level, then I am (a great player as well)."