Jameson Williams jogged over to a bag on the sideline, unzipped the rectangular case as his teammates stretched a few yards away and pulled out a football.
He squeezed the ball, but didn’t quite like its feel so he grabbed another instead. That ball wasn’t quite right either, so Williams, the rookie receiver from Alabama, fiddled around for another ball that met his liking before returning to the field.
As he made his way down the sideline to where fellow Detroit Lions receivers were stretching, Williams tossed the ball in the air to himself. For the rest of Saturday’s two-hour practice, he kept the ball in his hands.
Williams, the No. 12 pick of April’s draft, does not appear to be close to joining his Detroit Lions teammates on the field for practice as he continues to rehab from a torn ACL.
But Williams has been omnipresent during the first four days of training camp, hanging with receivers during drills, talking with positions coach Antwaan Randle El on the sideline, always with a football in his hands.
“I haven’t asked him (why he always has a football), but I think he just likes — he just likes it,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “He likes feeling it. If that keeps his mind right and gets him a little closer to being out there, I’m all for it.”
Williams is a football junkie, which is one of the things that endeared him to the Lions in the draft.
He told me at the draft in Las Vegas he sometimes slept with a football as a kid, and his desire to be on the field participating with teammates is clear. During a special teams period Friday, Williams talked with Josh Reynolds and DJ Chark as the three knelt on the ground. Reynolds and Chark put their helmets beside them and leaned forward on one hand for balance. Williams did the same with his football.
“When you’re on the side watching, sometimes those days become longer than what they usually are, so just keeping him engaged, keeping it lighthearted,” Chark said. “I know he’s putting in his own individual work to get back and I know he’s excited so I’m just here so that when he is back he can jump right in and keep it pushing. I think he’s going to help us a lot, but the biggest thing is being a teammate, being a brother at this point.”
Campbell declined to put a timetable on Williams’ return Saturday, or say where the rookie is at in a rehab that has stayed mostly behind closed doors.
At some point, Williams will be on the field this fall, and his speed should dramatically impact the Lions offense when he returns. Until then, he is doing everything he can to stay engaged.
“He’s had four really good days here of rehab since we’ve started,” Campbell said. “Those are the things that’s like, ‘OK, that really excites us,’ because he’s putting in the work and I think he kind of knows it and feels it. The football side of it, man, (he is) very much engaged. He’s putting himself in that position, ‘OK, I’m the ‘Z’ here. I’m breaking the huddle, this is where I line up, this is my split, this is my route.’
“El and (assistant Lions receivers coach) Seth (Ryan) are constantly quizzing him on it, but he’s already – he’s on it. He loves that part of it. And obviously, you see he loves having that ball in his hands. So that side of it is, I mean he comes up and he’s asking me questions. He’s asking me about the defense and what if they do this, this personnel with it? So that stuff is, he loves that stuff. So, it’s good.”
About 2,500 fans attended Saturday’s practice, which was far and away the most spirited so far of training camp.
Lions training camp observations from Saturday
• The Lions closed practice with a two-minute drill for the second straight day. This time, David Blough led the second-team offense against the second-team defense, and again it was a defensive player who delivered the period’s clutch play.
Starting from a first-and-10 at his own 38-yard line with 57 seconds left in the first half, Blough opened with a short pass to Kalif Raymond that Raymond went low to the ground to catch. Mike Hughes tagged Raymond down before he could get out of bounds, keeping the clock running.
On second-and-7, Austin Bryant came tearing through the line for a sack, and Logan Stenberg followed with a false start. On third-and-16, Craig Reynolds ran out of bounds on a draw; I don’t think he picked up the first down, but the series continued with more sputtering from the offense.
Bryant and Levi Onwuzurike forced Blough to throw the next pass away out of bounds, and after Raymond dropped a short curl on second down, Bryant and Bruce Hector forced another incompletion.
Bryant flashed pass rush ability going back to the spring. He had 4.5 sacks last season and could top that if he can expand his role beyond being a situational pass rusher this fall.
• Rookie first-round pick Aidan Hutchinson already is one of the Lions’ best defensive players, and every time I see him wreck havoc on the practice field — he was disruptive against the first-team offense in a run period Saturday — I’m reminded how few true defensive playmakers the Lions have had in recent years.
Ndamukong Suh was the last truly menacing player the Lions have had on that side of the ball, though Darius Slay and Ziggy Ansah would both fall into the playmaking category for me. I’ll be keeping close tabs on Hutchinson when pads come on next week, but he has the potential to be a terror in the league if he stays healthy.
“He pops,” Campbell said. “To watch him just continue to work and go through it, I’m telling you every day he just gets a little bit better and that’s all you care about is that you just see a little bit of improvement every day.”
• Taylor Decker did not practice Saturday after sitting out the final two-minute period on Friday. He injured his foot late last season and was still bothered by the injury this spring. He told me Saturday was simply a maintenance day on his way off the field.
Penei Sewell played left tackle in Decker’s absence. As well as Sewell played at right tackle last season, I’d be the Lions still flip Sewell to left tackle at some point in the (probably) distant future when Decker’s time in Detroit is done.
Elsewhere on the injury front, Dan Skipper returned from the nonfootball illness list and Devin Funchess, who suffered a minor groin injury Thursday, was back in a limited capacity Saturday and spent part of the morning working on the side with trainers.
• I mentioned defensive tackle Demetrius Taylor in my Friday observations, and Campbell shared defensive coordinator Anthony Glenn’s nickname for Taylor on Saturday: “Sawed Off.”
Taylor made a nice play to bottle up Godwin Igwebuike in a run period Saturday and seems to do something every practice that makes coaches take notice. At 6 feet 1 and 295 pounds, he’s another one who will be interesting to watch when pads come on.
• It’s always interesting to hear players and fans interact on the days fans are allowed at camp. One example Saturday: Duce Staley had his running backs do a bag drill while carrying a 35-pound weight. After he finished his first rep at the drill, Jamaal Williams yelled out, “Do you feel our pain?” And later, “You see the burn.” To which one fan replied, “We feel you Jamaal.”
• In the kicking battle, Austin Seibert was 3-for-4 Saturday, missing a 43-or-so-yard kick off the left upright. Riley Patterson seemed to make all four of his kicks, the longest from about 49 yards.
• A couple other plays that deserve highlighting: Mark Gilbert, who I mentioned in this space Wednesday, showed great burst to breakup a sideline pass to Josh Johnson from Tim Boyle in team. There were two receivers in the vicinity of Boyle’s pass, and Gilbert appeared to close from outside the second receiver to get to the ball.
Chark dropped a quick slant in the same period when Jared Goff made a hot read off a nickel blitz, then came back one back late and made an exceptional catch on a sideline route when the ball got him much quicker than he expected. He and Goff are still finding their rhythm together.
Jeff Okudah was involved in a couple big collisions Saturday, though players are not yet in pads. He ran through Quintez Cephus when Cephus caught a square-in during run period, then quickly helped his teammate up as fans let out a long, “Ooooh.” A few periods later, Okudah smacked into Tom Kennedy on a pass breakup. Clearly, the third-year cornerback is anxious to get back to football after a rocky first two seasons.
• Sunday is the first off day of camp, but observations will return Monday, when the Lions will be in pads.