INDIANAPOLIS – Back-to-back penalties threatened to stall the opening drive of the second half Sunday, with the Indianapolis Colts nursing a three-point lead against the rival Jacksonville Jaguars.
Facing third-and-19 at his own 24-yard line, Colts head coach Frank Reich sent a safe call into the huddle.
The screen pass was designed for third-down running back Nyheim Hines, but due to a miscommunication, seldom-used Jonathan Williams was in the backfield instead.
Then the 25-year-old former Arkansas standout seized the moment.
Williams caught quarterback Jacoby Brissett’s pass on the run in the right flat, dodged a couple defenders near the line of scrimmage and rumbled for 31 yards and a critical first down at Jacksonville’s 45-yard line.
Five plays later, Brissett threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Marcus Johnson and the Colts were well on their way to a 33-13 victory.
In the process, Williams delivered the season’s most unlikely star turn.
He was cut three times in his first three seasons and had two carries for 1 yard in two games before Sunday. But when starting running back Marlon Mack went down with a fractured hand on that same third-quarter drive, Williams made the most of his sudden opportunity.
He had runs of 48, 17 and 16 yards among his 13 carries and finished with a team-high 116 rushing yards – joining Mack (109) as just the fourth duo in franchise history to eclipse the century mark in the same game.
“I knew my abilities,” Williams said. “I knew that I just needed an opportunity, and God gave me the opportunity. I have a great offensive line in front of me, great coaching staff. (Running backs) Coach (Tom) Rathman does a great job of getting us prepared throughout the week.
“We have great running backs. Marlon, Jordan (Wilkins), Nyheim, we all feed off of each other and prepare each other. So it was a great moment. I was just able to seize the moment because of all of the help that I had throughout the week and my teammates.”
Williams was an instant hit with the fan base. His rags-to-riches story is irresistible, after all.
Drafted in the fifth round by the Buffalo Bills in 2016, he was cut the following September and signed to the Denver Broncos’ practice squad.
Two months later, the New Orleans Saints plucked him for their active roster, and he finished the season in the Big Easy. In September 2018, the Saints cut Williams and again sent him to the practice squad.
A month later, New Orleans parted ways with Williams all together. A day after that, he signed with the Colts and again was relegated to the practice squad.
But general manager Chris Ballard couldn’t stop singing the running back’s praises and called him up to the active roster for the final six weeks of the 2018 season.
Williams’ potential came into focus for the public during the preseason this summer when his punishing style earned him a spot on the initial 53-man roster. It also earned him a broken rib that cost him the first few weeks of the regular season.
Through it all, Williams remained positive his chance would come. And he was determined to be ready when it arrived.
“I’d say he’s been really patient, been waiting for his opportunity, and he knows what he can do,” all-pro left guard Quenton Nelson said. “I thought we saw flashes of that in the preseason. And he got hurt, just rehabbing, staying patient, and he did the most with his opportunities (Sunday).”
As quickly as the fans embraced Williams, it can’t match the love in the locker room.
Hines broke into a huge smile at the mention of his name Monday, veteran wide receiver T.Y. Hilton shouted encouragement to him as Williams met the media in the postgame locker room and defensive back Quincy Wilson mentioned Williams as an inspiration for players still waiting for their turn.
Wilson, who has been inactive in each of the past four weeks, could be thrust back onto the field for Thursday’s AFC South showdown at Houston because of injuries.
“It does give you, keep a light alive in you, I guess you could say,” Wilson said of Williams’ big day. “It was good to see him go out there and do his thing this weekend.”
The Colts hope Williams is just getting started.
Mack’s injury will keep him on the sideline for at least another week, and Williams could find himself back on center stage against the Texans.
The winner of Thursday’s game will take control of the division race with five games remaining in the regular season, and Indianapolis again is likely to lean on the ground attack.
Williams will be part of a three-headed monster — with Wilkins and Hines – tasked with replacing Mack’s production.
While the distribution of carries will remain a mystery until game day, Williams will do what he’s done throughout his long climb to the active roster – assume he’ll be a key component of the game plan and prepare accordingly.
“I always do,” Williams said. “No matter what the situation is, you have to think that way to be prepared for the situation. You always have to think of worst-case scenario, best-case scenario and prepare like you’re gonna be the starter.
“Because you never know what’s gonna happen. This team does a great job of that. Our coaches do a great job of getting us prepared every day throughout the week.”