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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Utah running back Joe Williams breaks into the open for a long gain as Utah and Colorado play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015.
I made some mistakes the first couple years of college. But I’m glad I got the opportunity to come out here and play for the Utes. —Joe Williams

SALT LAKE CITY — Joe Williams joined the Utah Utes as an understudy. After a troubled start at Connecticut and a rebirth at ASA College in Brooklyn, New York, the running back from Allentown, Pennsylvania, signed with the Utes last season, filling a role behind Devontae Booker on the depth chart.

“I knew coming in that was going to be my position, just backing up Devontae and just getting my reps when the coaches felt it need be,” Williams said. “I was glad to get the ample reps I did the first nine games.”

After that, however, things changed — drastically.

Booker suffered a season-ending knee injury in a 37-30 double-overtime loss at Arizona on Nov. 14. Williams wound up getting a fair amount of work in the setback, rushing for 37 yards on seven carries. Prior to that, he had only 12 rushes for 41 yards on the season.

“It was sad when Devontae went down,” Williams noted. “It just made me the next man up and I just did what I had to do.”

Williams responded with 26 carries for 121 yards the following week against UCLA. Then came an even bigger outing in the Pac-12 finale against Colorado. He netted 187 yards on 34 rushes.

In Utah’s 35-28 victory over BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl, Williams received MVP consideration with 91 yards rushing and two touchdowns.

“It was great,” Williams said of his opportunity to see more action. “I was waiting for that when I committed here.”

Now, in spring ball before his senior year, Williams eagerly admits he’s looking forward to the season. He has no regrets about signing with Utah.

“Not at all. I’m glad I did,” Williams said. “I made some mistakes the first couple years of college. But I’m glad I got the opportunity to come out here and play for the Utes.”

Williams enters his final campaign with several goals in mind. Individually, he has his sights set on 1,000-yards rushing and over 10 touchdowns.

Utah assistant head coach Dennis Erickson, who oversees the running backs, is confident Williams will get 1,000 yards if he stays healthy. Erickson anticipates Williams carrying the ball 20-25 times per game, unlike a higher number of attempts Booker had.

“I don’t know that we want to do that with Joe,” said Erickson, who added that he probably would have rested Booker more in retrospect. “We’re in pretty good shape. But I want Joe to be healthy through the whole season.”

Besides Williams, the Utes have running backs Troy McCormick and Marcel Manalo making statements in camp. This fall, Florida high school stars Devontae Henry-Cole and Zach Moss join the mix.

Williams, though, is the established frontrunner.

“He’s our lead back. He’s the featured back right now — primary ball carrier,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “He’s explosive. He brings a lot to the table. He has really figured things out since he’s been as well and I know his best is yet to come.”

Williams played in 10 games last season. He rushed for 477 yards, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. As a receiver, Williams made 11 catches for 84 yards.

“It’s his job to lose. He earned it last year when he played,” Erickson said. “He played real well, I thought, when Booker went down. He’s a good football player. He’s different than Booker — faster, but maybe not as physical, as Devontae.”

There’s common ground, however, when it comes to achieving team success. Booker was driven by it and so, too, is Williams.

“The main goal is just to help my team win the Pac-12 South, the Pac-12 championship, and get a bowl appearance,” Williams said.

Twitter: @DirkFacer