Joe Williams trying to fill Booker's shoes in Utah offense
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Once Joe Williams turns on his full speed, few people have a realistic chance of keeping up with the Utah running back.
Williams hammered that point home during the spring. He blew away all other returning Utes players in the 40-yard dash, clocking in at 4.35 seconds. The next-fastest 40 times were posted by receiver Kyle Fulks (4.44), fellow running back Troy McCormick (4.46) and receiver Kenric Young (4.46).
''I always pride myself on being fast,'' Williams said. ''It's one of my (best) qualities. Me and Troy McCormick go back and forth to see who's the fastest kid and I got him this past spring. I'll take that off into the season and see how that goes.''
Can Williams translate that speed and elusiveness into major production for Utah's offense this season? That's the vision the Utes have for the senior in 2016.
Williams entered Day 1 of Utah's fall football camp Thursday as the leader in the race to replace Devontae Booker as the team's backfield workhorse. He got a taste of what that job entails when Booker went down with a season-ending knee injury against Arizona late last season.
Williams started the final three games for Utah. He rushed for 399 yards and three touchdowns on 85 carries in those starts. He finished third on the team in all-purpose yards (561 yards) in limited action.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Williams enters fall camp as the lead back for the Utes. McCormick, who sat out last season following knee surgery, will also see time in the backfield and at slot receiver. Whittingham expects to see Williams flourish in his second season in the program.
''He's a whole different ball player right now than he was at this time last year,'' Whittingham said. ''Much more confident. Obviously, a lot of that is with knowledge of the offense. And, physically, he's much stronger. He's bigger and he's stronger than when he got here.''
If Williams can pick up where he left off, it should lend some stability to a Utah offense looking to fill holes at several skill positions.
The Utes have three players - junior Troy Williams, redshirt sophomore Brandon Cox and freshman Tyler Huntley - battling for the starting quarterback job. Utah also must replace its top two receivers from last season.
Receiver became an even bigger question mark when Utah announced Thursday that senior Cory Butler-Byrd was suspended indefinitely from the team. Butler-Byrd remains on scholarship but is banned from participating in team activities until the suspension is lifted.
Williams knows he needs to be ready to carry a big load and he has been working to mentally prepare himself to be a lead back this season. He has focused on improving his nutrition, getting stronger in the weight room and doing all the little things in practice to improve his running and blocking in pass protection.
''I came in last year as a JUCO kid and it was little baby steps,'' Williams said. ''But this year I feel like I can take off.''
Teammates feel confident that having Williams and McCormick in the backfield will keep the Utes from suffering any drop-off in the run game. Both players have enough breakaway speed when they find a hole to turn a five-yard run into a 60-yard play. Williams demonstrated that trait plenty of times in his starts late last season. McCormick gives Utah a similar weapon.
Behind an offensive line returning four starters and boasting its best depth since joining the Pac-12, that could be a winning formula as the passing game develops. Booker dominated opposing defenses behind the same line a season ago.
''It's always great to have elusive backs,'' left guard Issac Asiata said. ''You never know where Troy and Joe are going to go. They're so slippery. Whoever is there, if they can get the job done, it's all the same to me.''
Utah's fall football camp continues through Aug. 20. The Utes open the 2016 season at home against Southern Utah on Sept. 1.