Joe Williams Begins Quest to Earn Role With 49ers

Shanahan says former Utah running back looked good in Tuesday OTAs, but cautions that Williams must prove himself in exhibition games to get into running back rotation in 2018

This will be a make-or-break few months for running back Joe Williams.

The former Utah standout, a fourth-round pick of the 49ers in 2017, was injured  and didn’t play a single snap in the regular season. Now, with the Niners going through organized team activities (OTAs), head coach Kyle Shanahan and the front office are looking at Williams closely to see if he can provide another option in the backfield to go along with No. 1 running back Jerick McKinnon and second-year man Matt Breida, who came on well as an undrafted free agent last season.

Shanahan was a big fan of Williams and urged the 49ers to take him in last year’s draft. He saw Williams – 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds who ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the NFL combine -- as similar to the backs he had in Atlanta as offensive coordinator of the Falcons, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Both are versatile, quick, explosive ball carriers and receivers.

In his senior year at Utah, Williams averaged 6.7 yards per carry. He picked up 1,407 yards on the ground on 210 rushing attempts for 10 touchdowns.

“If you block it right and there’s a lane, he’s got that burst, the 40 time … the leg strength to run through arm tackles,” Shanahan said of what he saw from Williams at Utah. “He can hit it and be gone.”

Certainly, the door is open for Williams. The 49ers did not draft a running back this time around, believing Breida and Williams – if healthy – could give the team what it needs behind McKinnon.

In practice Tuesday in OTAs, Williams had his first chance to perform with the entire team in drills and looked solid. Recently, Shanahan had said Williams would need to show “urgency” in his approach to making this year’s roster, and it appears he’s taken that to heart.

“I noticed a couple runs today that flashed,” Shanahan said, according to Chris Biderman of USA Today’s NinersWire. “The thing with Joe is going to be how does he do when you get to preseason when those games start.”

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