© Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA — It typically takes players years to build the necessary perspective to reflect on their rookie shortcomings. 49ers running back Joe Williams is a different story.
Williams entered the NFL last year as a fourth-round pick with first-round confidence. Prior to the 2017 NFL draft, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said he would “be sick” if the 49ers did not select Williams, the Utah product with the breakaway speed and shiftiness to star in Shanahan’s outside-zone run scheme. Shanahan got his wish. His rousing endorsement of Williams allowed the running back to get complacent.
“It was me feeling as though, since I got drafted,” Williams said Thursday, “I was entitled to at least be already given a spot on the 53-man roster.”
What followed? Williams calls it a “domino effect.”
He entered camp 10 pounds overweight. He fumbled too frequently. He didn’t hit holes quick enough to allow his speed to take over. He injured his ankle near the end of the preseason and was placed on injured reserve prior to the 2017 campaign. Fellow rookie Matt Breida assumed the No. 2 role and ran with it.
As if a season spent on the sidelines wasn’t enough, a sit-down with Shanahan at season’s end hammered home the points. Be a professional. Get in shape. Attack your work with more urgency.
Williams called the conversation a “wake-up call.”
“I am pretty sure I am woke now,” Williams said after Thursday’s preseason opener.
“It’s the NFL,” he said. “You can be here today and gone tomorrow. You don’t want to take anything with a grain of salt. So, when the headman tells you, or even if it were the janitor, you are in this building for a reason, you have to perform.”
Williams spent the summer in Salt Lake City with his wife. He worked out with the Utah strength and conditioning staff and former college teammates. He focused on shedding fat and gaining muscle, lifting more reps and running gassers at the end of practice. He cleaned up his diet, which he calls “the big thing” in his metamorphosis. He entered camp 10 pounds lighter at his desired weight of 205 pounds.
It wasn’t all physical. Williams watched film of defensive schemes permeating the NFL. He studied running backs who thrived under Shanahan, including Atlanta’s duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Williams entered career Training Camp No. 2 refreshed and refocused to jumpstart his career. With the alternative in mind, he had no choice.
“It’s do or die,” Williams told KNBR. “I got to come with my A-game, or I am going to either be with someone else’s team or out of here.”
Williams entered camp battling for the No. 3 running back spot against Raheem Mostert, Jeremy McNichols, and Jeff Wilson. On the first training camp practice that included pads, during 11-on-11 drills, Williams ripped two 20-yard runs, then later busted open a 65-yard touchdown on a toss play.
He has followed that start with one solid practice after the next, stirring Shanahan’s excitement ahead of Thursday’s preseason opener.
“I’m a lot more excited now than I was last year just because of what he’s shown in practice,” Shanahan said. “He has come a long way in a year and he’s given himself a chance to be a good running back. We’ll see how it looks on Thursday.”
Williams’ 2018 preseason debut was relatively underwhelming. He carried the ball 11 times for 27 yards, but he punched in a one-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. After San Francisco’s 24-21 win, Shanahan said he didn’t see many running holes carved for the 49ers running backs. Mostert, perhaps Williams’ biggest competition for a roster spot, ran eight times for 57 yards and fumbled.
For Williams, the negatives of a turnover or missed assignment outweigh the positives of a big run. Shanahan knows the 24-year-old back has the big-play potential, as he has repeatedly shown throughout the past two weeks, but he wants to see Williams clean up the errors.
In that sense, Thursday night was the continuation of a successful training camp. Williams, wearing sunglasses in the locker room postgame, is encouraged with his progress.
“I definitely feel as though I am having a great camp,” he said.
Then the self-awareness crept in.
“You can’t have a hangover one day,” he continued. “You have to keep on progressing.”
For Williams, that means returning to practice Sunday ready to work. Then again Monday, and so on. As his productive summer showed, approaching the minute details with purpose leads to desired long-term results. Ultimately, that’s a spot on the 53-man roster— a now coveted honor he once took for granted.
“It has taken him time to see the difference and the urgency that it takes to succeed at this level,” Shanahan said last Friday. “Joe wasn’t quite as ready last year and that does make you wonder, because you can’t succeed if you don’t have that mindset. But, I’ve seen it this year.
“I saw it in the way he worked, and I feel that he fixed his body— got a lot more muscle and got in better shape. But, you really never know until you put the pads on because he showed it in OTAs, and we’ve had the pads on for a while now, and it’s been what we were hoping to see. Hopefully it will continue over to games.”