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THE HUNGER GAME: Saints RB Jonathan Williams Taking Charge in Competition to Replace Ingram

You saw it the other night in Jacksonville during the 1st Pre-Season win against the Jaguars, and once again it was evident today during Saints Training Camp Practice #14 at the team's Practice Facility in Metairie.

Hunger. Passion. Fire. Desire.

The will to win, and the drive to achieve ultimate success.

Those are the things that have become very obvious with the young man who has very quickly taken charge in the competition to become the temporary "replacement" for #1 Saints RB Mark Ingram in the first 4 games of the upcoming 2018 NFL season, while he serves a 4-game suspension for testing positive for the use of a banned performance-enhancing drug in his off-season training regimen.

And that young man is 2nd year Saints back-up RB Jonathan Williams.

After his performance this past Thursday Night, Williams has emerged as the "leader" to replace Ingram; even though it was first believed that fellow back-ups Terrance West and Shane Vereen were the two players who led the competition.

But Williams a former 1st team All-SEC RB at the University of Arkansas scored the game-winning TD late in the game and put himself into the conversation as "Ingram's replacement"; with 4 carries for 26 yards to lead all Saints RB's on the night during the team's come-from-behind 24-20 victory over the Jaguars.

Just 2 days later at today's practice, Williams was at it once again; but this time he performed with an even greater sense of urgency, and he had a packed house of Saints fans that were in attendance cheering wildly as he ran with power and authority on several running plays and a pass reception out of the backfield.

Williams was signed to the active roster back on November 14th, and had been with Denver's practice squad since September 5th of last year, signing with the Broncos one day after clearing waivers following his release from the Bills.

The running back's release was surprising to some League observers and analysts, as he appeared primed to serve as LeSean McCoy's backup in Buffalo. Instead, he spent a majority of the 2017 season working out and staying in shape on the fields of the Broncos' training facility.

(Photo Credit: Harry Scull Jr. / The Buffalo News)

One thing that likely has worked to the Saints' advantage is that Williams has been reunited with Saints RB coach Joel Thomas, who previously was Williams' position coach at the University of Arkansas.

After rushing for 900 yards and 6 TD's as a sophomore in 2013 with Thomas' guidance, Williams exploded for almost 1,200 yards (1,190) and had 14 total touchdowns as a junior in 2014.

Photo courtesy of Samantha Baker, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Despite splitting the ball-carrying duties with fellow Razorbacks RB Alex Collins, Williams still managed to finish the 2014 season ranked fourth in the SEC in rushing yards; while earning 2nd-Team All-SEC honors.

Unfortunately for Williams: after being chosen as an All-SEC preseason pick entering his senior year in the 2015 season, Williams’ final collegiate season was derailed by a foot injury in fall camp that required season-ending surgery.

That injury caused Williams' draft stock to plummet; and after originally having been projected to be a potential 2nd-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft thanks to that huge junior season that he had in 2014, the former Razorback and Dallas, TX native slipped all the way down to the bottom of Round 5 — due primarily to that same foot injury.

Williams played sparingly as a rookie in the 2016 season, rushing for 94 yards and one touchdown on 27 attempts during his lone season in the NFL behind McCoy.

But it was last year during the Bills 2017 Pre-Season, where things took a "dramatic turn" for Williams.

As noted by long-time NFL writer and well-respected Buffalo News veteran Bills beat writer Vic Carucci, Williams appeared to be a "lock" to fill the Bills #2 RB spot behind the soon-to-be-30-year-old veteran LeSean McCoy.

He had had a solid Training Camp and strong 2017 Pre-Season, averaging nearly 6 yards per carry while rushing for 121 yards in three games which he ended with a 21-yard touchdown run against the Lions in the team's Pre-Season finale right before last Labor Day weekend in early September.

Then-still-new Bills head coach (and former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator) Sean McDermott cited Williams' issues with fumbles and "ball security" as one of the reasons why Williams was released; though Carucci notes that there were only two instances where Williams had fumbled the ball as a rookie (when McDermott was still coaching for the Panthers) and had been putting in extra time and effort to prevent it from happening in the future.

Speculation in Buffalo is that McDermott may have been sending his team a message that there was a proverbial "new sheriff in town", and released Williams in part because of a DUI arrest that he was charged with prior to his rookie season.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Williams was arrested for DUI in July of 2016 while in Fayetteville, Arkansas, after he was seen weaving on the road.

He declined to give a breath sample on advice from his agent and told officers that he had one beer earlier that night.

According to the police report, Williams had watery eyes, slurred speech and had a "strong odor of intoxicants" and "swaying balance" during standard field sobriety tests.

He was later charged with driving while intoxicated and violation of implied consent law; but he was found not guilty and was not thought to be in in line for discipline from the NFL.

Photo courtesy of WBKW TV Channel 7, Buffalo, New York

He also dealt with a hamstring issue earlier in last year's Bills Training Camp, but by all accounts he was healthy and there were no other known issues to cause his release.

Bottom line: McDermott had his own personal reasons for releasing Williams contrary to what he said to the media, which he attributed to "doing what's right for this football team"

He also insisted the decision to release Williams had nothing to do with anything off the field.

"Absolutely not," McDermott said. "Jonathan is a great young man. He did everything we asked. There's none whatsoever in that regard. He did a fine job." 

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

In any event, the Saints now have a quality back-up at the RB position who can capably provide many of the same attributes possessed by Ingram.

Respected NFL Scout and USA TODAY Draft Wire analyst Jon Ledyard says that the first thing you identify about Williams when watching the exciting back is his exceptional balance. He’s constantly moving forward despite contact, often carrying tacklers for several yards in the rare event he can’t discard the defender entirely.

Ledyard says that Williams' jump cuts and subtle shifts to slide through creases are so sudden, and then there’s the determination to be able to absorb hits and keep moving forward at all times. The lower body strength that Williams possesses to keep his legs moving against all odds, is purely "remarkable".

Ledyard then adds that Williams' most underrated attributes are perhaps his heart and toughness. He was one of the more physical runners in all of college football during his time at Arkansas, showing the fiery drive to always fall forward and fight his way through tackles.

As Ledyard notes near the end of his evaluation: some big guys just naturally don’t go down easy, while others fight their hardest to never go down at all. Williams’ competitiveness puts him in that second category.

He glides in and out of his cuts more than he accelerates quickly. He’s a little bit one-speed for the position, but he’s so big and tough and light on his feet, that it typically doesn’t matter. 

One thing that Ledyard cautions however is that Williams had very little receiving production or targets from his time at Arkansas.

Obviously it was a run-heavy offense, but he does say that Williams "flashed" on wheel routes at times, and is ideal in the screen game because of his size and quickness in the open field (which Sean Payton and the Saints no doubt were aware of when signing him). 

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Ledyard closes his evaluation of Williams by adding that Williams' blocking (specifically in pass protection) needs work, but the big back is willing and stronger than most linebackers or defensive backs.

He just has to work on playing with proper technique and bringing the fight to defenders before they get into his frame.

Obviously based upon the observation and analysis of one of the League's most well-respected college scouts in Ledyard, the Saints may have gotten a player who's more than just a "replacement" for Mark Ingram for the first 4 games of the 2018 regular season.

Hunger. Passion. Fire. Desire.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

The will to win, and the drive to achieve ultimate success.

Those are the qualities that could prove beneficial to the New Orleans Saints as they seek to "replace" Mark Ingram for the first 4 games of the 2018 NFL Regular Season.

And it's the same qualities that could allow Jonathan Williams to help shoulder the load for the Saints running game, just when they need him the most.......

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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