Seeing himself draped in the team’s Honolulu blue-and-silver uniform for the first time on media day was a surreal experience as the fifth-year running back prepares for his first season in Motown.
“I’ve always been jealous of this blue and this gray,” Williams said, smiling.
After playing his college career at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, then spending his first four years as a Packer in Green Bay, Williams is seizing this opportunity in Detroit.
“For me, I’ve always been in small cities, so for me it’s big to come here. I’m like, it sure is a lot of people around this mug,” Williams said. “But, it’s cool. I really like it. I like how it’s just its own place.”
On the field, he’s also expected to be the No. 2 running back as a complementary piece to D’Andre Swift.
A role which Williams has no problem filling after serving as a backup to Aaron Jones with the Green Bay Packers in 2020, while still being effective with 505 rushing yards, two touchdowns and averaging 4.2 yards per carry.
His consistency is much-needed in Detroit, particularly at that position.
“I see this as just a new beginning, a new time for me to just be able to show my talents and show my abilities and everything I’ve just been working on this whole offseason,” Williams told ESPN. “I always know that I can always work on something to get better and find something that I can improve or find something new.
“So, you can always get better, and I’m just grateful for the coaches, the GM and everybody for just giving me an opportunity, and that’s all I ever really wanted was just an opportunity to be able to show my abilities,” he added. “Now I get to do it in a new offense by being able to get my running backs coach Duce Staley and Anthony Lynn as the OC. It just feels good. Then with the head coach biting kneecaps and stuff. You know what I mean? This is like, ‘uh oh, it’s feeling real youthful in this boy [laughs].’”
The Lions haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush in 2013, the longest active drought in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Detroit's run game thrived during Hall of Famer Barry Sanders' time with the team, as it led the NFL in 1,000-yard rushing seasons and 100-yard rushing games by individual players from 1989-98.
Since 1998, they've been arguably the worst running team in the league.
“I feel like with our players and my teammates and everybody, just want to get out of this slump we’ve just got to start new. Then at the same time, we’ve got to have a new mindset of how we’re gonna do things around here,” Williams told ESPN. “We’re just gonna be focused and sacrifice for the team. The more you sacrifice for the team, the more the team will flourish. It’s just part of me learning it at the same time. It really just comes with a lot of team chemistry, and that’s what we’re getting on. I’m having fun with it. I love all my teammates. These boys are funny, and at the same time, we’re working hard.”
Last season, veteran Adrian Peterson, who is no longer on the team, led the Lions with 604 rushing yards, but his 3.87 yards per rush ranked 41st out of 47 qualified running backs. Even as a rookie, Swift was clearly the more effective running back, averaging 4.57 yards per rush, but he never got the chance to be “the guy.”
Peterson also had only 12 receptions to Swift’s 46, but he’s now in position to break out under the new Lions regime, tutored by running backs coach Staley – a former NFL standout.
Staley understands the ins and outs of the game, even from behind the scenes, and he’s preached having “juice” within the group, even when guys aren’t feeling it on a particular day. So far, he hasn’t had to worry about Williams, who has an infectious personality -- even after the running back lost his father this offseason, which reminded him to “live every day like it’s my last.”
“You start with his leadership – on and off the field – especially in the classroom,” Staley said. “He brings that presence and that leadership that a running back who has played the game brings. When you get out on the field, you look at his work ethic. This guy is out there working, he’s staying after, he’s asking questions, he’s catching balls, he’s going through footwork. It’s a pleasure to have him.”
Williams has also been active in the community, recently partnering with Microban 24 to honor one of Detroit’s "Most Valuable Protectors," Latoya Jones, who has helped keep the Detroit Lions Academy sanitized and protected during the pandemic.
Although Swift feels he has an all-round skill set to carry the load, he sees the value in Williams -- and not only as a football player.
They know they’ll need each other to change the narrative for running backs within the franchise.
“We’ve got good chemistry,” Swift said during OTAs. “I like Jamaal’s game a lot. I think we’re gonna complement each other real well.”