May 4—Javonte Williams made everyone’s job at North Carolina easier, starting with offensive coordinator Phil Longo.
Williams, the Broncos’ second-round pick Friday, spent two years under Longo’s tutelage. In those two seasons, Williams rushed for 2,073 yards and 24 touchdowns, while also catching 42 passes for 481 yards and four touchdowns. Longo said when he first met Williams in spring 2019, he knew he had a talented back on his hands. He showed glimpses of that in 2019, but then exploded into becoming, in his opinion, the “best running back in college football.”
“He has the unique ability to really excel in all aspects of running back play,” Longo told The Gazette. “You kind of play call around the talent that you have out there on the field. With Javonte out there, we were never limited in doing anything because he can do it all.”
The Broncos are hoping for that same type of production in Denver. They haven’t been a top 10 rushing offense since 2011 when they had Willis McGahee and quarterback Tim Tebow. The Broncos ranked first in the league in rushing that season, with 2,632 yards on the ground — they haven’t had a 2,000-yard-plus rushing season since.
Coincidentally, Williams is the first running back the Broncos have drafted in the first two rounds since Montee Ball in 2013. And it cost them, too, trading their fourth-round pick to move up five spots to get Williams. But they fully believe Williams will be worth the price.
And with six-year veteran Melvin Gordon coming off a 986-yard and nine-touchdown season, the Broncos look primed to have an elite rushing attack in 2021.
“We just think (Williams) is a special back. A three-down back, really good on first and second down,” general manager George Paton said. “He fit our criteria. He is going to help us — him and Melvin and (Mike) Boone. I feel like you need two or three backs in this league to have success, and he is going to bring that to the table.”
Splitting time, which he’ll likely do with Gordon, is not unfamiliar to Williams. He and Michael Carter split carries in 2019 and 2020 at North Carolina. Carter had 333 carries, Williams had 323.
This makes Williams one of the freshest backs entering the league, having only 366 carries in college — almost half of what Alabama’s Najee Harris (638) and Clemson’s Travis Etienne (686) had in college, who were both taken ahead of him. Not to mention Williams played linebacker in high school until switching to running back his senior year.
“I don’t know Melvin, but it takes a really unselfish positive attitude by both backs to make something like that work, obviously,” said Longo, who’s been coaching since 1996. “And Michael and Javonte are very, very close friends. I really believe, in a lot of ways, they were each other’s biggest fans. No one was more excited to see Michael rip one off and hit the end zone than Javonte. And Michael would say the feeling’s mutual. … The two of them kept each other fresh. And I think that’s going to play in Javonte’s favor in his career because he’s taken far fewer blows.”
The Broncos wanted to have a two-back system in 2020-21 with Gordon and Phillip Lindsay, but injuries kept Lindsay sidelined most of the season. Lindsay also didn’t see much action even when he was healthy due to his limited abilities.
Lindsay, who signed with the Texans this offseason, wasn’t the biggest back and was more of a burner for the Broncos. He also wasn’t a back the Broncos targeted out of the backfield. Among running backs, he ranked 75th in the league in total targets (14) and Gordon ranked 26th in targets (44).
Williams is someone who can open that part of coordinator Pat Shurmur’s offense.
“We didn’t just throw to him on swings and short stuff,” Longo said. “We hit him down the field, over the middle and out on the perimeter. He’s got some good hands as a running back. He’s a talented receiver out of the backfield.”
Williams, Longo said, can literally do it all.
“He’s a great runner between the tackles, he’s an outstanding perimeter runner, he does a good job at the point of contact — I think he had more broken tackles this year than any running back in college football — and he has the ability to run around you, too,” Longo said. “He can shoulder lift you and run you over and he can kick it into fifth gear and run by you. It’s a nice blend of each. He’s a fairly diverse runner. He’s an outstanding pass protector. He’s also a very good run blocker. And the last piece of the puzzle is that he’s a really good receiver out of the backfield.”
On top of all that, Paton said one of the biggest reasons he traded up for Williams was his character.
Williams was not only one of the most well-liked players at North Carolina, but in college football. From Wallace, North Carolina, Williams was mostly unknown coming out of Wallace Rose-Hill High School, where he was valedictorian and won four-straight state titles. Now, most everyone in North Carolina knows his story.
And soon, Broncos Country will, too.
“I told Javonte what I tell all our guys that go to the NFL: I’m going to be your biggest fan. And that’s as easy of a thing to say to Javonte as any of them,” Longo said. “I want to watch him play for the next 12-15 years. I have no doubt he’s special enough to be a really talented running back in the NFL.”
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