BLACKSBURG -- Former Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams came back to school after all. Sort of.
Thanks to the NFL lockout, Williams has yet to sign a contract with the Arizona Cardinals, who selected him 38th overall in April's draft. He hasn't gotten a playbook, hasn't gone through a mini-camp and can't work out at the team's facilities.
So Williams is back in Blacksburg, running and lifting daily in the Hokies' weight room, trying to keep his body ready for when the lockout ends. The day Arizona drafted him, during the only conversation Williams had with the team's management, the Cardinals gave him just one instruction:
"Stay in shape," he said, "because you never know when [the lockout is] going to be called off."
Williams wants to hit the ground running whenever he joins his team, believing he can immediately help a Cardinals rushing attack that was the NFL's worst last season.
"We want to see Ryan starting from Day 1," said Williams' agent, Malik Shareef. "Being in shape from the beginning is a big part of it."
To that end, Williams returned to Tech about two weeks ago to refocus his training. He said the hardest thing about staying fit is the food. While he'd prefer to eat a steady diet of fruits and vegetables, "it's easy to get distracted when you're around friends and family."
After playing last season at about 210 pounds, Williams weighed 216 last Thursday morning before his workout. He said the Cardinals would like him to be between 205 and 208.
"They just want me fast," he said, noting there are fewer distractions from his training in Blacksburg, which becomes a ghost town in summers with most students gone. "It's isolated, so I can stay focused."
Ideally, though, he'd be in Arizona. In fact, Cardinals' Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has been in touch and wants Williams to join the player-led workouts. It would be good for Williams to build some relationships on the team, to get a peek at the playbook and to see what kind of workouts he'll face in the NFL.
"A lot of times when guys go from high school to the college workout, you see a big leap in their bodies," Shareef said. "I think the same applies to going from college to the NFL."
Even so, Shareef has advised Williams not to join the player-led workouts because Williams hasn't signed a contract and an injury might be a disaster.
The agent points to former Texas linebacker Sergio Kindle, who was the No. 43 pick in the 2010 draft but fell down a flight of stairs and broke his skull before signing a contract. Because of medical concerns, Kindle ultimately signed a one-year deal for the rookie minimum, $320,000, with no signing bonus. The 43rd pick in the 2009 draft signed a four-year, $4.3 million deal with $2.7 million guaranteed.
"If we weren't in a lockout, you'd be working out under supervision and receiving treatments from team physicians," Shareef said. "It's just too scary to think of what he could lose if he got hurt."
Last year's No. 38 pick signed a four-year, $5 million deal with $3 million guaranteed. That was a 7 percent increase over that slot a year earlier, and Williams' agent would expect a similar bump for his contract, assuming a rookie wage scale isn't part of the new collective bargaining agreement. But Williams and his agent aren't willing to assume much these days.
"It's an uneasy time," Shareef said. "Imagine working your whole life to get to this dream, then you get there and you can't get to work."
Williams is still working plenty, though, hoping to be ready when the NFL calls.
Tech's strength and conditioning staff puts together daily workouts for him and undrafted former Hokies center Beau Warren, tight end Andre Smith and defensive tackle John Graves, all of whom hope to sign free-agent contracts after the lockout. Their routine is scribbled on a dry-erase board that also bears an inspirational message: Forge your body in the fire of your will.
Williams runs through agility drills -- often wearing a 25-pound vest -- and sprints through a sand pit in 90-degree heat. Next week, he'll begin working out in full pads, just to get that feeling back.
"I want to come in and be an impact player," he said, shrugging off the obvious disadvantage that he's missing valuable time to learn Arizona's offense. "That just means I'll have to work extra hard to get on the field.
"Football is about adjusting, just like life, so I'll adjust."
In the meantime, Williams' agent said he ends their phone conversations with the same message each day:
"Please, don't get hurt."