CHARLOTTE -- Anyone who has watched DeAngelo Williams since his days at Memphis can tell you how quickly he could change direction and head full-speed the other way.
More impressive has been the way he's turned his entire game around this offseason, looking more and more like the back who could carry the Carolina Panthers.
Williams was the star of the Panthers' 23-20 overtime win over Indianapolis in the preseason opener, gaining 55 yards on nine carries and scoring a pair of touchdowns as they raced to 14-0 lead in the first four minutes.
But for all the things he did on the field, those around him acknowledge that he's changed the way he's doing business off it, and that's the significant part.
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"I guess you could say I took a different approach this year as the past two as how I approach the field," Williams said after the game. "I still had that college mentality, if you will; the light didn't cut on as far as being a professional football player."
Now it has, and everyone's taking notice.
"I think DeAngelo would be the first one to tell you, now that he's the starter, the feature guy, he's really got a lot more serious about running the ball," left tackle Jordan Gross said.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson was the first to call attention to it last week, saying he noticed throughout the spring that Williams was asking more questions, interested in learning concepts more than just specifics.
"I don't mean to make this sound like he was immature, but he's really grown up, and I think he's become a major player on our offense," Davidson said. "And I mean that in every regard, because we use him on and off the field. He helps the young guys, as well.
"I couldn't answer that exactly, how it transpired, other than the fact we've seen it. It's obvious in his approach to the game. One thing is, it may be more important to him. Maybe he sees the light that it is his job."
That's been under question since April, when the Panthers used their first-round pick on Jonathan Stewart, the bull-legged back from Oregon whose game is a philosophical match to what the Panthers want to do. But rather than cede the position, or crabbily try to protect turf he won when DeShaun Foster was cut, Williams has tried to bring Stewart along even if it's at the expense of his own playing time. He said he learned that way directly from Foster, who had to wait his turn behind Stephen Davis, only to see the team draft his eventual replacement in Williams in 2006.
"He taught me some things, and he always said, 'Whether I'm here or not, I'm going to give you the tools, so when another guy comes in, you can teach him what I taught you,'" Williams said. "That's essentially what I tell Jonathan. ...
"I can't wait to get him on the field, and he show you what he can do. Like I've said, whether he's the starter or I'm the starter, it doesn't make a difference as long as we're productive as a duo."
Stewart's still out as he recovers from offseason toe surgery, and there's no guarantee he's going to play Thursday in Philadelphia. And the longer he's out, the firmer grip Williams is taking on the starting job.
Known throughout his brief career with the Panthers as a "change-of-pace" or, worse yet, a "finesse" back -- labels that carry the connotation he can't be trusted with the whole load -- he's shown he's able to fit into the power running game the Panthers hope to install. He converted a pair of short-yardage situations Saturday night, including for his first touchdown. Granted, the Panthers' line opened huge holes for him, but there was no popping outside looking for an easy path. He put his head down and took what was there, touchdowns and first downs.
"Well, whatever's productive," he said with a shrug when asked about the tag that's followed him. "Whether it's finesse, or pounder, or 4-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust. Whatever it takes to get the job done, as long as it's getting done.
"You can call me a finesse back or a scat back or a go-out-of-bounds back or whatever. As long as we're productive and winning games, whatever it takes."
Quarterback Jake Delhomme joined the chorus of those signing Williams' praises, humming a few bars Foster's way as well.
"You had DeShaun, and DeAngelo was behind DeShaun and now DeShaun's gone. He had a good role model to follow, because DeShaun did everything right," Delhomme said. "For DeAngelo, this is a big chance for him. For one, we got a whole lot better up front, and I think it was obvious tonight. It was just a start, but we had some big guys that made some holes, and DeAngelo, he's pretty good now. ...
"I think this year we'll see for certain what DeAngelo can do. I think the last couple of years we've been able to do certain things, but I think his true test is this year, and I think he'll do just fine."
For all his time in the spotlight Saturday, Williams was quick to spread it around, making sure everyone knew how grateful he was to his line, to Brad Hoover, to Delhomme -- and having an actual quarterback this year will help the run game more than is readily apparent.
He also laughed when someone asked if he had something to prove this year, knowing the underlying meaning of the question.
As much as he valued Foster's guidance, there was a clear sense that he wondered why it was taking so long for him to get his chance. After all, he averaged 5.0 yards per carry to Foster's 3.5 last year, but still wound up with 100 fewer attempts. He never voiced his frustration then, however, and he's not buying trouble now, not with Stewart on the horizon.
"No," Williams said. "Football's supposed to be fun. When you're trying to prove things, then it's you against whoever, and it's not like that."
• Panthers notebook • 3B