Allen Park — It’s only a practice without pads in early June, but Jamaal Williams is leaving imprints every chance he gets. He figures he’s got some catching up to do.
On one particularly stirring play during a 7-on-7 drill Thursday, he caught a short pass, split the linebackers, juked the safety and churned untouched down the field. As he bounded back to the huddle, he was chattering and finger-waving, not just to boast, but to boost the energy. Williams is the only free-agent the Lions signed this offseason to more than a one-year deal. After four years in a Green Bay backfield dominated by Aaron Jones, Williams got his freedom, and is happy to express it as colorfully as possible.
First-year coach Dan Campbell wants a team of football-loving, fun-loving, body-shoving players. Besides a major influx of talent, the Lions need a shot of energy. They need more competition at more positions. With a personality that bubbles and a running style that thunders, Williams is eager to show people all he can do. He wears a running back number (30) but he’ll be catching passes from Jared Goff, as will starter D’Andre Swift. The Lions might even sign veteran Todd Gurley, further confirming they’re serious about running the ball.
Williams is serious about his receiving skills, and his all-around skills, and explains it in his not-so-serious manner.
“I’ve been trying to tell this defense, don’t look at this number 30 and think, oh, (defending) routes is going to be easy,” he said. “I want THAT. I want all of THAT. And if you think you’re frisky, come at me one on one. People haven’t seen this side yet. That’s what’s going to be crazy, they’re about to get this juice, all this swag-daddy. They’re gonna be like, man, where was all this at?”
Mostly, it was tucked away in Green Bay, where Williams averaged 496 rushing yards and 30 receptions in four seasons. He’s used to being tucked away, enduring a rough upbringing in California and an occasionally rough college career at BYU. He tore knee ligaments one year and was banished from the program for the 2015 season for violating the school’s Honor Code. He nevertheless left as the program’s all-time leading rusher with 3,901 yards and was drafted by the Packers in the fourth round in 2017.
Behind Williams’ joyous exterior, pain lurks. When he was in the ninth grade, his father essentially became an absentee father, and the relationship was non-existent for years. The relationship ended last month when Larry Williams, 64, passed away.
“We were just getting back to reconnecting,” Williams said. “I’m just grateful that before he passed away, my last words were, ‘I love you.’ Just taking it a day at a time, trying to live every day like it’s my last. Doing the best I can, being a better brother, a better dad, a better family member, a better person in general. Spread as much positive impact as I can on people.”
He recently started working with manufacturer Microban24 to honor front-line cleaning and sanitization workers. He finds it difficult because he gets emotional when he sees people in need, and yet he looks for ways to make an impact.
It’s apparent to the Lions, who already have deemed Williams a team leader. Swift rushed for 521 yards and caught 46 passes in a promising rookie season, and also draws praise from the new staff. He won’t be easily supplanted, but offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn will use both in multiple ways. Although Lynn was branded a run-first play-caller because of one run-heavy year as Buffalo’s offensive coordinator, the Chargers were more balanced in his four seasons as head coach.
Both Swift, 22, and Williams, 26, can catch and make defenders miss, with Williams’ size (6-foot, 213 pounds) providing more power, while the 5-9 Swift is shiftier.
Of course, there are many ways to make an impression, and Williams has made a quick one on running backs/assistant head coach Duce Staley.
“Start with his leadership, on and off the field, especially in the classroom,” Staley said. “When you get out on the field, this guy is working, he’s staying out there, he’s asking questions, he’s catching balls, he’s going through footwork. In our running back room, we talk about ‘juice,’ just having ‘juice’ on the field. We talk about that and it’s natural for him.”
It was natural for Staley, who was a running back with the Eagles and Steelers for 10 seasons. Staley, 52, is one of the Lions’ fresh new faces, and the connections happen naturally.
“It’s great to have Duce, and from a player-coach standpoint, he really can give us both sides,” Williams said. “Picking his brain makes things easier getting into this offense. Just great to have someone else who’s got juice and brings it everyday.”
That’s a lot of juice talk, to the point you wonder if Williams can become Duce the duce on the field. As he does with most questions, Williams considers it thoughtfully and playfully.
“Duce is a little more spark-pluggy than me, honestly,” Williams said. “I think his football side still wants to be here but he’s in coach mode. So all his juice, he wants that to come out of us, to play harder, run harder, block harder. Every time we catch the ball, every time we score, or do something good, that’s his way of saying he’s playing through us.”
Lions coaches also have raved about Gurley, and their interest in the one-time star sure sounds real. Gurley is only 26 but has taken a pounding in six seasons. He’s a cautionary tale about the perils of the position, and could be a reasonably-priced short-term insurance policy.
Williams and Swift readily talk about how their skillsets complement each other, and how the competition is productive. It’s the early phase of a new regime, as well as a new start for Williams, and everything is upbeat. Behind a big, touted offensive line, the Lions finally might have a dynamic backfield, and Williams finally might get a chance to make his biggest impact yet.