USC-Miami bowl foes share an NFL quest

Former South Carolina Gamecocks wide receiver Damiere Byrd hopes the Medal of Honor Bowl helps him get an invitation to the NFL Combine. (Allen Sharpe/Aiken Standard)

Ryan Williams was living the college football dream. The strong-armed, 6-foot-6 South Florida native was the leading candidate to be the starting quarterback at Miami.

Then came a devastating pop sound on a routine rollout play in spring practice. The 2014 season was ruined for Williams, a fifth-year senior. He attempted exactly one pass for the Hurricanes - incomplete.

"This is really my whole senior season," Williams said of Saturday's Medal of Honor Bowl at Johnson Hagood Stadium. "I haven't had a chance to show anybody what I can do and this will finally be my first chance - and really my only chance - to show everybody."

Damiere Byrd had more opportunities to show his skills. The South Carolina wide receiver capped his senior season with three catches for 51 yards and two carries for 19 yards against Williams' Hurricanes during a 24-21 victory in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl victory on Dec. 27.

But it wasn't enough to get Byrd proper notice.

This is what the Medal of Honor Bowl and other postseason showcase games are all about, capable guys looking for NFL believers. For a few hours Saturday, Williams and Byrd will bid for invites to the prestigious NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

As teammates on the Medal of Honor Bowl's National Team, their quest partly depends on each other.

Of course, there are defensive ends and cornerbacks on the American Team eager to see to it that Williams and Byrd have a miserable afternoon.

"It's been fun trying to get to know these other guys, trying to find out what they're good at and how you can get them the ball," Williams said.

Byrd offers deep-threat potential on every play. He is probably the fastest Gamecock, a veteran track sprinter who has been clocked at 4.3 seconds over 40 yards.

Pluses: Ability as a kick and punt returner, an ideal jet sweep option, SEC experience.

Minuses: Only 5-9, and declining production as a senior (down from 33 catches as a junior to 20 as a senior). Three South Carolina wide receivers caught more passes than Byrd in 2014 (Pharoh Cooper 69, Nick Jones 42 and Shaq Roland 26).

"This is a great opportunity to be able to play in a game with so much talent around and a lot of scouts being here," Byrd said. "I just want to be able to go out in the game and show my abilities, make plays and just have a good time."

After the Medal of Honor Bowl, Byrd plans to return to Columbia to finish up a few weeks of classes. Then it's off to Fort Lauderdale to train at Fit Speed Athletic Performance until the Gamecocks' Pro Day in April, or the NFL Combine in February.

South Carolina's 7-6 slump after three straight 11-2 seasons doesn't stain Byrd's Gamecock experience.

"Obviously, it was a little bit of a disappointing season compared to what we've had," he said. "But either way, we're proud of what we've done and what we've been able to accomplish. I don't think there's anything in the program we should change just because we went 7-6."

Williams would change a lot about his time at Miami, including a 6-7 record in 2014. After throwing five touchdown passes in a Florida high school state championship game to break a record held by Tim Tebow, Williams enrolled at Memphis. He started 10 games as a freshman and transferred to Miami.

After two seasons as a backup, 2014 was going to be Williams' big year.

Freshman Brad Kaaya wound up winning the Miami quarterback job. Williams demonstrated maturity and football smarts by enthusiastically tutoring Kaaya.

Now Williams is on his own. A quarterback who switched high schools (from Plantation American Heritage to Miramar) and colleges looking for the right fit is searching again, this time for interested pro scouts.

"Most of them really just want to see if I'm healthy and want to see what I can do," Williams said.

Tapping into the best traits of Damiere Byrd might be good for both the quarterback and the wide receiver.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff