GREEN BAY – Dexter Williams has spent the first month of his NFL career patiently waiting for a chance to show what he brings to the Packers’ backfield.
That opportunity could finally come this Sunday for the rookie sixth-round pick against the Dallas Cowboys.
However, the Packers’ backfield has been thrown for a bit of a whirl after the scary hit Jamaal Williams sustained in last Thursday’s game against Philadelphia has landed the third-year running back in the NFL concussion protocol.
While everyone in the locker room breathed a collective sigh of relief for Jamaal Williams, the Packers were forced to finish the Eagles game with only Jones and Vitale available in the backfield.
As the only other running back currently on the 53, Dexter Williams is prepared to be the next man up if Jamaal Williams isn’t cleared to play in Dallas.
“I feel confident where I’m at,” said Dexter Williams following practice Wednesday. “Jamaal and I are two different guys. He’s his own person. I’m my own person (but) I feel like I could definitely step up and help out and do what I need to do. I feel like I can play a great role in this offense. I’m just here to do my job.”
It’s not the first time Williams has had to be patient. Despite playing right away as a true freshman at Notre Dame, the 5-foot-11, 212-pound running back didn’t actually become a full-time starter until his senior year.
Williams’ lone season as a featured back left a strong impression on NFL scouts. He racked up 995 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 158 carries (6.3-yard average). His modest collegiate workload (279 touches in four years) was largely viewed as a positive during the pre-draft process.
This past summer, Williams showed an explosive first step between the tackles to become the Packers’ top rusher in the preseason (128 rushing yards and a TD on 37 carries) to claim a spot on the team’s 53.
Once the calendar flipped to September, however, the keys to the backfield were again handed to Jones and Jamaal Williams. In the meantime, Dexter Williams has been busy working with position coach Ben Sirmans on further learning the offensive scheme and backfield protections.
“He’s progressed really well on the practice field, in the classroom,” said Sirmans last week. “The only thing (now) is you don’t have the preseason to throw him in there to test the waters to see if everything that he’s done to prep himself that he’s ready to go. Now, it’s real live football. But everything he’s done, that I’ve seen, leads me to believe (despite not) having the opportunity to throw him out there in real games yet that he’s ready to go.”
The Green Bay Packers practiced inside the Don Hutson Center ahead of Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Williams’ early exit against the Eagles resulted in Jones playing 66 of the offense’s 79 snaps with Vitale (19 snaps) giving Jones an occasional breather. Vitale not only received his first carry in three-plus NFL seasons but also caught two passes for 15 yards.
The former Northwestern “super back” has been in the position of having to step in as an emergency halfback before in Green Bay, spelling Jamaal Williams against the New York Jets last December when Jones was out with a knee injury.
Regardless of what form the backfield takes, the Packers are aiming to increase their ground production. Through four games, they sit 26th in both rushing offense (86.2 yards per game) and average yards per carry (3.5).
The Cowboys are a respectable 12th against the run thus far, buoyed by two fast and athletic linebackers in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch patrolling the second level of the defense.
“We have a huge challenge ahead of us with this defense and really this whole team against Dallas,” Vitale said. “Not to look too far into the future but we have a tough stretch of games. So we have to get the run game figured out. I expect Aaron (Jones) is going to step up a bunch, maybe get Dex in there and have him step up as well, (and) get Jamaal back as quickly as possible.”
As the Packers wait to see how the chips fall for the backfield this Sunday, Dexter Williams says his mentality hasn’t changed this week. If his number is called, the rookie wants to provide a spark for the offense – no different than the first four games.
For the time being, Dexter Williams plans to take full advantage of the extra reps afforded him in practice this week to get a better feel of the No. 1 offense and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“We’ve got to get him ready,” said Rodgers of Dexter Williams. “He’s been not a big part of the offense in the first quarter of the season. Hopefully he’s dialed in. He practiced today and we just have to keep getting him some reps to get him as comfortable as possible if Jamaal can’t go.”