TAMPA, Fla. -- Carnell "Cadillac" Williams took the handoff and eagerly headed into a cluster of defenders.

"I was looking for contact," the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back said Saturday. "It was cool to be out here getting knocked around."

Steve Nesius / Associated Press
Cadillac Williams is completely recovered from offseason knee surgery.

A little more than seven months after suffering his second major knee injury in just over a year, Williams not only was back on the field but participated in full-speed drills during the opening practice of training camp.

Williams was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2005, when he became the first player in league history to begin his career with three consecutive 100-yard games. Since then, his production has been limited because of injuries.

He began 2008 on the physically-unable-to-perform list after tearing the patellar tendon in his right knee against the Carolina Panthers in September 2007.

Six games into his comeback following a lengthy rehabilitation, the 27-year-old tore the patellar tendon in his left knee when he was tackled at the end of a 28-yard run during a season-ending loss to the Oakland Raiders.

"That Oakland game, I really felt things coming on. I was back in that comfort zone," said Williams, who led the Bucs with four rushing touchdowns despite starting just one game -- against the Raiders -- last season.

"Coming back, everything was fast to me. The game was slowing down (against Oakland), I could see cuts before I would make them," he added. "I was back."

In a departure from the past seven seasons under Jon Gruden, the Bucs opened training camp with a practice in pads under new coach Raheem Morris.

Williams was not surprised he was able to participate without limitations because the latest injury was not considered as severe as the first.

Healthy in Tampa

After a season in which the running back position suffered through a litany of injuries, the Bucs' backfield is fully healthy in training camp. There are four running backs competing for roles. Take a look at their 2008 stats:

Derrick Ward (with NYG)
Games/Starts: 16/3
Carries: 182
Rushing yards: 1,025
Touchdowns: 2

Earnest Graham
Games/Starts: 10/10
Carries: 132
Rushing yards: 563
Touchdowns: 4

Cadillac Williams
Games/Starts: 6/1
Carries: 63
Rushing yards: 233
Touchdowns: 4

Clifton Smith
Games/Starts: 9/0
Carries: 8
Rushing yards: 40
Touchdowns: 0

In 2007, the patellar tendon in his right knee was ruptured. In his left knee, the tendon pulled away from the bone, making it simpler to repair and requiring less recovery time.

"My whole mind set was this one wasn't as severe, so I knew I'd be good once I got going," he said. "I feel better than ever. My mind is clear. I'm good. I'm back. ... Again."

Williams is also facing stiff competition for playing time, maybe even his job.

The Bucs signed Derrick Ward, a 1,000-yard rusher with the New York Giants in 2008, in free agency. Earnest Graham led Tampa Bay in rushing the past two seasons, and second-year pro Clifton Smith, a Pro Bowl kick returner as a rookie, also is in the mix.

After rushing for 1,178 yards and six TDs as a rookie, Williams has gained 1,239 yards with eight TDs in the past three seasons. He welcomes the challenge earning a spot in a potentially crowded backfield.

"We're going to be a physical team. We're going to run the football and get after people. I'm excited to see how things turn out," Williams said.

Under Gruden, the Bucs normally used the first two or three days of training camp to get acclimated to the heat before donning pads.

Morris has promised more practices in pads in hopes of building a team that's tougher and less susceptible to late-season collapses like the one that cost Gruden his job in January.

After a 9-3 start, the Bucs dropped their last four games to miss the playoffs.

"I just believe pads are going to be our winning edge. There's no other place like Tampa that you've got to come play at one o'clock in the afternoon and try to win," Morris said.

"A lot of people look at it as a negative that we don't have any night games. I looked at (the schedule) and said we've got one o'clock games, people are going to come down here and get tortured. It's going to be hot, and we're going to be used to it. We're going to embrace it."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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