Football can be a cruel, heartbreaking sport.
Consider the case of Ian Williams.
During last summer’s training camp and exhibition season, the 49ers’ defensive lineman – in his third pro season after being an undrafted free agent from Notre Dame – finally had a chance to win a starting job with the departure of veteran nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga.
Williams outperformed veteran Glenn Dorsey, earned the starting job and played very well in a season-opening victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Niners linebacker Patrick Willis used terms such as “amazing” and “unbelievable” to describe Williams’ play.
But in Game 2 his season came to an early end when he suffered a broken left fibula and ligament damage when he was cut-blocked by Seattle guard J.R. Sweezy.
Dorsey then stepped into the starting spot and played very well, cementing his status going into this 49ers training camp, which will have its first practice Thursday.
Williams said it was hard to be sidelined last season and watch the team go on without him all the way to the NFC Championship Game. But Williams was confident he would be ready by the opening of training camp.
Now, his future looks a bit more cloudy. Last week, Williams was placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, a procedural move, according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. It means the 49ers can put him on the PUP list at the start of the regular season and he won’t count against their 53-man roster.
The move doesn’t necessarily mean Williams won’t play his way back into the lineup this summer. It is expected he will practice at some point during camp. It simply gives the team insurance, just in case Williams’ comeback falters.
Williams told reporters that, “I want to make sure I’m close to 100 (percent)” before getting back onto the field, because as a nose tackle, he’s being blocked, pushed and wrestled every play by 300-pound offensive linemen.
Williams is recovering from four surgeries and months of rehabilitation. Recently, he said his left leg “feels good” but remains a bit weak. But, he added it’s feeling better every day and he’s optimistic he can get back on the field to compete for the job he held so briefly in 2013.
When he does return, however, the 49ers will be deep at nose tackle, with Dorsey and second-year pro Quinton Dial. Whether Williams can make it all the way back to his starting job this summer – or have his comeback delayed still later this season or next – is the question.
As Williams recently tweeted, when asked if he were going to be ready to play in training camp: “Won’t really know that until we start camp.”