KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chiefs fans haven't had much of a chance to see running back Darrel Williams during the regular season outside of 19 special teams, but the rookie has had plenty of work on his plate, including serving as scout team running back mimicking the likes of Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon and others.
“Watching those guys on film, just trying to imitate, do what they do, I think it's added a little bit more to my game that I can use from their game and implement into my game,” Williams said.
The 23-year-old undrafted free agent from LSU may soon get the chance to put those new skills to the test. The sudden departure of Pro Bowl running back Kareem Hunt means the Chiefs need all hands on deck in the backfield, and that likely means a larger role for Williams.
General manager Brett Veach saw enough from Williams to carry five running backs into the regular season due to his upside. Veach said following the final roster cuts in the preseason that Williams won his roster spot thanks to the right attitude and a willingness to come into work.
“The kid is smart, he works hard, does a great job in pass protection, he can catch the football, he’s a big back,” Veach said. “I think one of the things you’ll see here is we have a desire to acquire big backs that can catch. So you look at Kareem Hunt, Damien Williams, Spencer Ware and Darrel Williams they all go 220, they can all run in between the tackles and they can all catch the football and he fits that mold.”
Head coach Andy Reid tells rookies their job during training camp is to make decisions on who to keep and who to cut as difficult as possible. Williams did just that.
“When Brett was sorting everything out, that wasn’t an easy decision,” Reid said after Williams made the 53-man roster. “It was something he had to think about because normally we don’t keep that many backs. He deserves to be here and that’s how he went about making that decision.”
For Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, the competitiveness of Williams stood out to him most of all. Bieniemy wants toughness and willingness to fight in his running backs, and he found that spirit in Williams.
“He happens to be a good football player that plays the running back position,” Bieniemy said at the start of the season. “He can run the ball between the tackles pretty tough, he can catch the ball well out of the backfield and also, too, is not afraid to stick his nose in there and pick up a blitz. You like those guys who have that skill set because they bring a lot to the table.”
Williams proved that competitiveness throughout his college career. A four-star recruit from Marrero, Louisiana, Williams committed to home-state LSU, eschewing 20 other offers including invites from Georgia, Florida and Wisconsin, among others. He committed to LSU in the same class as five-star running back Leonard Fournette. Five-star Derrius Guice committed the following year, yet Williams stayed the course at LSU.
Despite never securing the lead-back role for the Tigers, Williams still found a way to rush for 1,651 yards in college with 19 touchdowns on the ground an averaging 5.1 yards per rush. He added another 462 yards on 38 receptions.
Williams felt playing in the Southeastern Conference provided him with the best roadmap to the NFL, even if it came riding in the shotgun seat at times.
“I think that's that big thing that really helped me out playing in the SEC,” Williams said. “I don't feel like it really was a big adjustment. I feel like the game speed is pretty much the same. I think the big different is everybody is more detailed with everything, just steps in every single detail.”
Williams entered the draft as late-round projection, but saw himself fall out of the draft completely. He measured in at 6-foot, 225 pounds at the combine. His 4.72 speed in the 40-yard in Indianapolis didn't blow any doors off their hinges, although he did improve to a 4.61 at this pro day in April. But Williams showed a quickness that belied his numbers during offseason workouts and training camp.
That athleticism and his blue-collar attitude sold Veach on making him a priority free agent.
“He goes in there (at LSU) and was a guy they trusted, they relied on, knew his assignments, can do everything well,” Veach said. “He can play some teams, he’s very good in pass pro, tough runner in between the tackles, he can catch the football and you saw that carry over here.”
Due to the Chiefs' bevy of backs and few if any injuries in the group, Williams played understudy through much of the first 11 games of the season. He finally saw his first action on special teams in Week 10 against Arizona. The rookie said he felt no butterflies heading onto the field.
“I tried to go out there and do the best I could do,” Williams said. “I tried to go out there an make some plays and catch the coaches' eyes. I felt good out there, I felt comfortable.”
Williams attributes much of his poise during his rookie campaign to the presence of his teammates. It helps having college teammates J.D. Moore and Dillon Gordon in the locker room. Both players are on injured reserve, but fellow running back Moore gives him both a companion and a connection to home.
“That's always a big help when you've got somebody you played with in college, especially in the same room with you, so you all get to study together just like you did in college,” Williams said.
Williams also soaked up much from veteran teammates including Hunt, Spencer Ware, Damien Williams and Anthony Sherman.
“It's been great, and I think it's good for me to learn from the guys who four, five, even two years experience,” Williams said. “That helped out a lot, because those taught me a lot of things with the playbook that I had to adjust to fast. It was a big help to me.”
Williams showed flashes of brilliance through the offseason program and training camp. He rushed for 75 yards during the preseason, and perhaps most impressively caught eight passes for 58 yards and a touchdown.
His moving up the Chiefs' depth chart with the release of Hunt comes on the heels of another major moment in Williams. His family welcomed their first child on Thursday, Darrel Williams III, henceforth known as Tre.
“Words can't describe how I feel right now,” Williams wrote on his Instagram account. “Thank God for blessing me with you in my life. I promise ima be the best father to you.”
With big changes at home, Williams might also see big changes at work. What role the Chiefs envision for Williams over the course of the final five weeks of the season and beyond remains unknown. Yet it seems likely Reid wants to see what the rookie can do, especially given the potential the coach sees in him.
“He has room to grow,” Reid said. “He's a tough runner. He's like Spencer where he’s strong in the core, has good hands and is smart.