SALT LAKE CITY — Joe Williams had a feeling his phone would be ringing soon after seeing Utah starting running back Armand Shyne go down with a season-ending injury in Game 6.
His fiancee and father were the first to mention the possibility to the former Utah running back.
Sure enough, the Utah coaching staff reached out Oct. 10 to Williams, who retired Sept. 13, to gauge his interest in returning after injuries to Shyne, Zack Moss and Troy McCormick destroyed the Utes’ depth at the position. The senior returned Tuesday, started Saturday and paced the 19th-ranked Utes (6-1, 3-1 Pac-12) with 179 rushing yards and a touchdown in a 19-14 win over Oregon State. Utah travels to face UCLA on Saturday.
“I made the decision more for the team rather than myself,” Williams said. “Put all that injuries and selfish attitude aside and put it all on the line for them. (Leaving was) more psychological. This is a rough sport out here to play and I’ve been doing it for so long. Just sitting and talking to my family, knowing in my mind it would be the right decision to step away from it. … My body just didn’t feel right at the time.”
Williams was the heir apparent to Devontae Booker when the season started, but he managed just 75 yards combined in the first two games and was benched with a fumbling issue. The retirement was abrupt, but the other backs had played better and deserved more playing time.
Then they all got banged up. Kenric Young and Brian Allen FaceTimed Williams first thing in the morning last Monday to come start conditioning. Then offensive administrative assistant Nick Alaimalo and running backs coach Dennis Erickson got in touch.
Coach Kyle Whittingham said he checked with the team to make sure the players approved of a Williams return and went from there.
The Utes didn’t bother easing him back in and gave Williams 34 carries in a weather-affected game.
“He really hit the ground running, I guess you could say,” Whittingham said. “Came back the exact same body weight. Wind wasn’t quite where it was, the conditioning level. Three good days of practice. We didn’t anticipate him having the workload that he did.
“We figured we’d test the waters with Joe and see what his interest level was — physically did he feel like he could do it. … When it was all said and done, he felt like it was the right thing to do to come back and help the football team.”
Williams said he’d been keeping in shape and the roster has him listed at 205 pounds, but he admitted to living a relaxed, retired life while continuing to take classes. He discussed the situation with family and Utah receiver Cory Butler-Byrd, who was the most adamant among his teammates. The two are close and Williams is the godfather of Butler-Byrd’s newborn son.
He had been attending home games and sitting in the seats he would normally give to family and friends. He described the experience as “enlightening.”
Williams said he was somewhat surprised to get the call despite his father and fiancee saying so after the Arizona game. He assumed Moss or McCormick would be ready, but that wasn’t the case.
Williams seemed to run with more purpose than he did early in the season. He wore down as the game went on, but that’s to be expected after a month off. Being back wasn’t “too weird.”
“I told them that I left personally for psychological problems and physical dilemmas that I thought would be harmful to the team,” Williams said. “Not able to perform at my best and be more of a cancer to the long haul of the Pac-12 season. I told them that me coming back is more for y’all.”
Quarterback Troy Williams said he was welcomed back with open arms.
“Great to have him back with the team,” Troy Williams said. “That’s our brother. … It was like he never left.”