With Isaac Sopoaga anchoring the middle of the 49ers’ defensive line the past few seasons, Ian Williams has played a bit role.
In two seasons since signing as an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame, the 6-foot-1, 305-pounder has been used as an extra defensive lineman in running situations and as a backup nose tackle when Sopoaga needed a play off. He played in three games last season and one in 2011, and has a total of just three tackles.
But this season, it’s possible Williams could be playing a much bigger role. With the departure of Sopoaga in free agency, Williams has been impressive in training camp so far at nose tackle, getting reps with the first-team unit.
Though it was assumed that veteran Glenn Dorsey – acquired this offseason from the Chiefs -- would be the front-runner going into this sumer training camp, Williams is making a statement with his play.
Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers for the Sacramento Bee, wrote that Williams has been anchored on the defensive line between ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald since camp began at Santa Clara.
“On the first play of team drills, he got underneath guard Alex Boone and flushed (quarterback Colin) Kaepernick from the pocket,” Barrows wrote Sunday. “Williams has an excellent motor and he won’t be easy to dislodge from the starting unit.”
Williams, 23, received a two-year contract extension and a $1 million bonus this offseason, and figured to be in the team’s plans for 2013 when Sopoaga was allowed to leave. Barrows called his new deal “a reward for the true hustle he’s shown” in practice and brief playing time since coming to the 49ers.
Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat also noted that Williams has been impressive in the early days of camp, calling him after one practice session, “the most disruptive defensive lineman today.”
“He was violent in one-on-one blocking drills and during team drills he was constantly stuffing the run and ripping through the offensive line,” wrote Cohn.
Of course, these are only drills and early practices, far from game situations. Once the exhibition season begins, it will be interesting to see how well Williams and Dorsey perform, and how the playing time is divided. But if both players can be effective, it could give San Francisco a much deeper rotation at the position, and allow Dorsey to be used at other spots on the line as well.
This spring, head coach Jim Harbaugh mentioned that if Williams shows he’s capable of playing at nose tackle, it will create a positive ripple effect.
“If Ian comes along, he’s going to get quite a few of those reps (at nose tackle) and Glenn can be an end as well and take some of those snaps as well,” he told reporters recently.
After signing his contract extension this spring with the 49ers, Williams said he simply wanted to compete in training camp and “do what I need to do.”
Niners GM Trent Baalke called Williams “a young, talented player” at that time, and says he believes Williams can develop.
Williams told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group that going undrafted out of Notre Dame is “still burning in my mind and heart,” so he wants to prove his worth and show what he can do in this training camp.
With a new contract and his first real chance for playing time, he’s eager for the challenge.
“I came with a suitcase and some dreams,” Williams told Inman. “I was able to call my mom and hear her excitement over the phone (after he signed his new deal) and know I have a little more stability now. But it’s the tip of the iceberg and I’m willing to dig even deeper to get where I need to be.”