Whenever Maxx Williams hurdled over a cornerback, or erased a would-be tackler with a block, or made one of his surreal diving catches, the Gophers coaching staff had one thought: Enjoy it while it lasts.

“Even in practice, you knew he was a player that could play on Sundays,” Gophers tight ends coach Rob Reeves said. “It was just a matter of when.”

On Friday, Williams ended what little suspense remained, announcing that he’ll leave college early to enter the NFL draft. Players must spend three seasons in college before entering the draft, and Williams, an All-America tight end, is eligible as a redshirt sophomore.

“I sat down with my parents, and I said, ‘What were your goals when you got to college?’ ” Williams said. “I wanted to play in the NFL. And now, having the opportunity to go play in the NFL, for me, it was just the right time.”

Williams is the first Gopher to leave early for the draft since Laurence Maroney in 2006. Maroney left after rushing for 1,464 yards as a junior and was a first-round pick (No. 21) by the Patriots.

Williams submitted his name to the NFL Draft Advisory Board, a group of talent evaluators that study underclassmen and report back with a projection on where they might be drafted. The board is purposely conservative with its projections, so underclassmen don’t make the no-turning-back leap with overinflated hopes.

The board told Williams, by its estimation, he didn’t project as a first or second-round pick.

“They said, conservatively, it would be top three [rounds],” he said, adding that was good enough for him.

Rotoworld.com, meanwhile, speculated that Williams could climb his way into the top 15 picks.

Williams, 20, is a communications major who was named an Academic All-America player this year. He said he’ll regret three things about his time with the Gophers: not winning a bowl game, not winning a Big Ten title and not beating Wisconsin.

But the bottom line is he’s on a mission to play in the NFL. It’s been his dream since he was a little tyke, tagging alongside his father, Brian, a former NFL first-round pick who played center for 11 seasons for the New York Giants.

Maxx Williams said he won’t be disappointed even if he falls lower in the draft than predicted.

“You can’t worry about when you get drafted,” he said. “You get drafted in the seventh round, you made your dream, you made the NFL. So I could get drafted in the first round, I could get drafted in the last round — I made my dream.”

Williams said he told coach Jerry Kill last month that he likely would enter the draft if he made it through the bowl game healthy. And Williams made it official Friday morning with a call to Kill.

“We appreciate all that Maxx and his family have done for the program,” Kill said. “They are great people, and we wish nothing but the best for Maxx as he begins his professional career. Maxx has been an integral part in laying the foundation for our program and has helped move our team forward.”

Williams led the team with 36 receptions this season for 569 yards and eight touchdowns.

Duke Anyanwu, who tore an ACL on the second day of preseason camp, was expected to be No. 2 on the depth chart at the flex tight end spot. Reeves said Anyanwu will be back for spring practice and noted that Nick Hart made big strides in practice late in the season. Other candidates for Williams’ reps are Brandon Lingen, Nate Wozniak, Lincoln Plsek and Jerry Gibson.

“I mean, you’re never going to replace a player like Maxx Williams,” Reeves said. “He’s an outstanding football player, but we’ve got some good talent coming through that I’m excited about.”