There’s never an ideal time to tear a ligament in your foot but Jonathan Williams had every reason to lock himself his bedroom and weep.
The Arkansas running back chose to return to school for his senior season rather than go pro — he saw a team that could compete in the SEC, he was voted a captain, he was set to become a household name. Then, in an Aug. 15 scrimmage, Williams planted and a player stepped on his foot.
And the very next day — staring at surgery on Aug. 17 — Williams woke up at 6 a.m. to work out.
“That first night I got the news was tough,” Williams said. “But when I woke up that next morning I was ready to get on the road to recovery. So I had to start working.”
And that was that.
With only one class on his plate to finish his degree in Communication, Williams spent all of his time in the film room and recovery mode. Now, finally, he can play again. The Buffalo Bills made Williams the 156th overall pick in last weekend’s draft, beefing up what was already the NFL’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack.
His senior season was robbed by injury. Memories were ruined. His draft stock fell.
There probably won’t be a hungrier player at St. John Fisher College for training camp.
“I don’t think so,” Williams said. “I’m already a highly motivated guy anyway. The fact that I didn’t get to play last year and was on the sideline watching adds to the hunger — for sure.”
So who is Jonathan Williams?
It’s easy to forget. He hasn’t even carried the ball in a game since Dec. 29, 2014, you know, 492 days ago. As a junior, Williams rushed for 1,190 yards on 211 carries (5.6 avg.) with 12 touchdowns. The 5-foot-11, 220-pounder isn’t a burner, as his 4.59 in the 40 at Arkansas' pro day hints, but he runs with a mix of power, balance and one-cut decisiveness the Bills view as a perfect fit for Greg Roman’s scheme.
He’ll run through linebackers, yes, but Williams forced 44 missed tackles in 2014 with elusiveness, too. Originally recruited by Bobby Petrino, Williams was a back who operated in open space. He needed to be creative. Then, Bret Bielema was hired and ushered in his brand of smashmouth.
So Williams compares himself to Marshawn Lynch, a workhorse who’ll play all three downs and evade tacklers in different ways.
“I’m a fighter,” he said. “I’m a lot more versatile than people give me credit for. Because of the system I was in, I had to change my style to fit to that system.”
Williams finished with a bang in 2014, ripping Texas for 105 yards and a score. The following August, he injured his foot.
Growing up in football-hotbed Allen, Texas, this sport was all he ever knew. Williams started playing at 5 years old. So, heck yes, there was initial shock. “It definitely hurt,” he admits. But then he thought back to when his family was evicted from their home days before he headed to college. Mom lost her job in real estate and Dad left for New Orleans to find work as a chef and take care of a mother with Alzheimer's.
Long story short: Williams has been through worse.
He woke up for that 6 a.m. workout and never looked back. Teammates had voted him a captain so he was in their ears constantly, an active participant in daily running backs meetings. When he wasn’t rehabbing the foot, Williams was on the board breaking down plays with Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos.
He insists time away from the field gave him “a better knowledge of the game.”
“Things are going to happen,” he said, “it’s how you react to them. So that was just another piece of adversity I had to overcome. … It all motivated me to work harder and never get comfortable with where I am.”
Buffalo was already well-stocked at running back with LeSean McCoy, Karlos Williams, Mike Gillislee and James Wilder Jr. On Twitter, Karlos might’ve actually coined a nickname for the group, tweeting to Jonathan “welcome to the #LegionOfZoom.” Considering the position was ravaged by injuries last season — McCoy and Williams missed a combined nine games — the Bills wanted to cover themselves.
Where other teams devalue running back, the Bills value it. Every move they’ve made on offense this off-season from re-signing Richie Incognito to locking up Cordy Glenn suggests Buffalo hopes to run to glory in 2015. Quite possibly, management will regret not drafting a safety or offensive tackle by midseason. And, of course, any foot injury to a player who makes his living with his feet is a red flag.
But Buffalo's doctors aren’t concerned. Director of Player Personnel Jim Mono expects Jonathan Williams to compete with Gillislee immediately.
“He’s downhill, straight-ahead, great vision, instincts, inside the tackles,” Monos said. “He’s not a 4.4 blazer. He’s a 220-pound downhill back.”
Jonathan Williams has done his research on the Bills, too. On Roman, on McCoy, on the offensive line, on the fact that they averaged 152 yards per game on the ground last season.
So when asked for expectations, the rookie doesn’t hold back.
“The best in the NFL,” he said. “We already led the NFL in rushing. Hopefully I can contribute to that backfield. I definitely think we can be the best backfield in the NFL.”