1 of 2
Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah linebacker J.J. Williams missed most of the season because of a lingering foot injury.

SALT LAKE CITY — It didn't seem like such a big deal at the time.

It was Aug. 11, the day of the Utah football team's first scrimmage of fall camp, and starting linebacker J.J. Williams injured his left foot. He can't remember the exact play, just that the top of his foot hurt enough during the scrimmage that he couldn't play without a lot of pain.

So he sat out of practice the next day. As the Deseret News reported at the time about Williams' injury, "early indications are that it is not serious." That's what Williams, his coaches and trainers all thought.

However Williams sat out the next day ... and the next ... and the next. It went on for a couple of weeks and he had to miss the opening game against nationally-ranked Pitt. Still he and his coaches expected him to play any day.

But it went on and on and on. It was called a foot sprain and Ute trainers couldn't comment on it, although Williams said a ligament on the top of his foot was the problem.

Williams still had to come to practice every day and probably set a record for most days in the dreaded "Pit" where injured players are required to spend their time while their teammates play out on the field.

"I was in the pit every day," he said. "It was a long stretch."

Williams said he mostly did abdominal workouts and bends, trying to maintain his body core with assistant strength coach Greg Argust supervising.

"Me and coach Argust became pretty close," said Williams, who saw more than a dozen other players come and go from the pit during August, September and October, while he worked out.

Finally, after nearly three months of many discouraging days, Williams has returned to the playing field. He saw his first action since August, playing about a dozen snaps on defense against TCU last week.

Even though Chaz Walker, Chad Manis and Matt Martinez have all performed well with Williams out, Williams' value to the team is shown by the fact that he is scheduled to start Saturday at Notre Dame, according to defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake.

"It's huge to get him back," said Sitake, who also coaches the linebackers. "He has started for us, he's got experience and he's one of the leaders of the group. Every day he gets better and gets closer to 100 percent, so we're excited to have him on the field. You always want to have a guy like that on your defense."

Coach Kyle Whittingham is also thrilled to have Williams back on the field.

"He's a guy who's accountable, very talented, very consistent," Whittingham said. "He's one of our best defenders when he's healthy. He'll continue to get reps. We'll see how the practice week goes; how he responds to a week of full-time duty."

Williams believes he's almost 100 percent and relishes the opportunity to get back in action.

"It's always fun to get back going full speed and hitting people," he said. "It feels great. Anytime you're watching your teammates (and not playing) it's tough."

Williams originally came to Utah as a walk-on out of Aurora, Colorado. Following a redshirt year, he got the chance to start midway through the 2006 season when a couple of teammates were hurt. Once he got the chance, he never gave it up and started the final seven games at rover linebacker. His 55 tackles ranked fifth on the team and he returned an interception for a touchdown against UNLV.

The next year he left on an LDS mission to the West Indies and returned in time for the 2009 season, only to find the Utes had three senior linebackers in Stevenson Sylvester, Mike Wright and Kepa Gaison. Williams was the top backup and finished with 20 tackles on the year.

Williams was the top linebacker in spring camp and poised for a great season until his untimely injury in August.

The question a lot of folks have had, is "why doesn't Williams sit out this year and get another year back?" After all, other Utes such Brandon Dart and Darryl Poston have gotten as many as seven years to play due to injuries.

The difference, according to Whittingham, is that Williams already used his redshirt year (in 2005) and once that is used, a player can't get a redshirt year for injury.

"That's what they explained to me so I go by what they say," said Williams." But it's good to get in for at least a few games at the end this year. I just want to make the most of it and have fun."

As for getting to start at Notre Dame this week, Williams says, "We're looking forward to it. They're a great opponent and we're excited to go out there and get a win hopefully. I've never been there, but everyone says it's a great football atmosphere. It'll be the experience of a lifetime."

e-mail: sor@desnews.com

Utes at South Bend

Utah (8-1) at Notre Dame (4-5)

Saturday, 12:30 p.m.Notre Dame Stadium


Radio: 700 AM