Damien Williams growing into role of featured running back
On the third play of the second half of the Chiefs’ first meeting with the Patriots, Kareem Hunt lined up in the backfield beside Patrick Mahomes.
As the ball was snapped, Hunt took off for the right sideline before streaking down the field. As Mahomes was chased from the pocket, he found Hunt sprinting downfield and fired off a pass to the running back.
Hunt caught the ball and sprinted ahead of the Patriots’ defenders, finishing off the 67-yard pass play in the end zone.
That was just one of Hunt’s five receptions in the regular-season meeting between the two teams.
But a lot has changed since the Chiefs visited New England on Oct. 14.
Hunt is no longer with the team, and Damien Williams is the Chiefs’ starting running back.
With Hunt’s departure (he was kicked off the team after a video surfaced of him pushing and kicking a woman at a Cleveland hotel last February), the Chiefs can’t rely on the same offensive game plan that’s been fruitful against the Patriots in their last two meetings.
In those two games, Hunt caught 10 passes for 203 yards and three touchdowns. He also had 27 carries for 228 yards and one touchdown. He made the Pro Bowl last season and was headed in that direction this year until his dismissal in November.
But now, Williams will be responsible for shouldering most of the running backs’ load. Though Williams doesn’t quite have the same skills as Hunt, Reid is still confident in his ability to exploit some of the Patriots’ weaknesses.
“He’s done a nice job of stepping in,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Those were some big shoes to fill. Kareem (Hunt) did do a nice job against (the Patriots.) I think Damien (Williams) has done a nice job of stepping in and putting his own personality to that position and how he plays the game.
“He brings a lot of energy. He has a short memory, which is important. If he has a hiccup in there, he jumps right back on and wants the ball again and tries to do the right thing.”
Williams hasn’t been asked to catch the ball out of the backfield much, but he’s had some success when those plays have been called.
In four seasons with Miami, Williams averaged about 21 catches a year for 183 yards. In his best season, Williams had three receiving touchdowns.
In his first regular season with the Chiefs, Williams had 23 receptions for 160 yards and two touchdown catches.
“When he was at Miami, he did a heck of a job of catching the ball out of the backfield,” offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. “The numbers may not show, but obviously he’s done that. He’s worked on that, he’s improved, and the sky can be the limit for him.
“We just love what he brings to the table and we’re expecting him to play up to the level that he’s played up to.”
All of that, though, comes as a little bit of a surprise to Williams’ high school coaches.
“I give him a hard time now because he couldn’t catch a screen pass to save his life, and of course now it’s one of the things that really gets him on the field as an every down back,” said Chris Thompson, Williams’ coach at San Diego’s Mira Mesa High. “That’s what we talked about a bunch when I had him and growing up, I said, this is what makes an NFL running back.”
Williams laughs now thinking about how far he’s come as a pass catcher, skills he especially developed as a running back at Oklahoma.
“I definitely for sure had to work on that,” Williams said of catching the ball. “If you call a couple of my coaches they’re kind of mad, they’re like, ‘where’d you learn how to catch all of a sudden?’ It’s for sure something you have to work on. That’s just hitting the JUGS every day after practice.”
And now, Williams’ hard work has helped the Chiefs manage the shift in running back.