The NCAA rushing champion was selected in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft — Donnel Pumphrey of San Diego State. So was the all-time leading rusher at Oklahoma, a school with a rich running-back tradition – Samaje Perine. So was Wayne Gallman, who set a school record for career 100-yard rushing games for the national champion Clemson Tigers.
But my favorite back in the round was Utah’s Joe Williams. And it has less to do with the selection than the selectee. The San Francisco 49ers drafted Williams with the 121st overall choice and now turn his NFL future over to their running back coach, Bobby Turner.
I like his chances for success. Turner weaves coaching magic in the run game.
Turner has been a running-back coach in the NFL for 22 seasons. In that time, he has produced 16 1,000-yard rushing seasons by nine different backs. And not a one of them was a first-round draft pick.
Terrell Davis was a sixth-round selection by the Denver Broncos in 1995. Turner coaxed a 1,117-yard rushing season out of him as a rookie and a 2,008-yard rushing season out of him in 1998. Davis will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer.
Mike Anderson also was a sixth-round choice of the Broncos in 2000. Turner coaxed a 1,487-yard rushing season out of him as a rookie.
Alfred Morris was a sixth-round pick of the Washington Redskins in 2012. He gave Turner a 1,613-yard season as a rookie.
Olandis Gary was a fourth-round selection of the Broncos in 1999. He delivered a 1,159-yard season as a rookie under Turner.
Devonta Freeman was a fourth-round choice of the Atlanta Falcons in 2014. He delivered a 1,079-yard rushing season for Turner and the NFC champion Falcons in 2016.
Reuben Droughns was a third-round pick by the Broncos in 2000. He gave Turner a 1,240-yard rushing season in 2004.
Tatum Bell was a second-round selection of the Broncos in 2004. He gave Turner a 1,025-yard season in 2006.
Clinton Portis was another second-round choice of the Broncos in 2002. He gave Turner back-to-back 1,500 yard seasons in his first two years before being traded to the Redskins straight up for Champ Bailey in 2003.
The common thread in all of Turner’s success stories has been a Shanahan, Mike and Kyle. Mike hired Turner as his running-back coach at Denver in 1995, and they spent 14 seasons together there. Turner stayed on with the Broncos in 2009 after Shanahan was fired, then followed him to Washington when Mike became head coach of the Redskins in 2010.
Turner again stayed on for a year in Washington after Shanahan was fired in 2014, then moved to Atlanta in 2015 when Kyle Shanahan was named offensive coordinator of the Falcons. When Kyle became the head coach of the 49ers this offseason, Turner followed him to San Francisco.
The Shanahans know the running game and are committed to it. But it’s Turner who makes it all work. His rushing attacks have finished in the NFL’s Top 5 in 12 of his 22 seasons, and he has produced four Pro Bowlers: Davis, Portis, Morris and Freeman. Davis is his only back to win an NFL rushing title with that 2,000-yard season, but Morris finished as the NFL runnerup in 2012 and both Anderson and Portis have finished individually in the Top 5.
If there was a Hall of Fame for assistant coaches, Turner would be in it.
Which brings us back to Williams. He was a junior-college transfer, like Mike Anderson. He played at Utah, like Mike Anderson. And he was a college workhorse, like Anderson, rushing for 1,407 yards in only nine games last season. He also was a later-round draft pick, like Anderson. So Turner has been handed this script before.
Williams slipped in the draft because he took a leave of absence from the Utes for four games in the first half of last season. The perception was he quit on his team. In reality, he needed time away from football to grieve the death of his sister — and he was able to explain himself at the NFL scouting combine.
When he returned in mid-October, Williams ran the football like a back who deserved to go much higher in the draft, shredding Pac-12 defenses. In consecutive games, he rushed for 179 yards against Oregon State, 332 against UCLA, 172 against Washington, 181 against Arizona State and 149 against Oregon. He closed his college career with a 222-yard game against Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl.
San Francisco general manager John Lynch became a Hall-of-Fame candidate for his play at safety with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and finished up his career playing for Mike Shanahan in Denver. He hired Kyle Shanahan as his first head coach. He trusts the Shanahans and their system.
“The one thing I’ve learned with the Shanahans and with Bobby Turner as our running back coach, they have a great eye for exactly what fits in our system,” Lynch said. “They just felt that Joe was a tremendous fit for us. We can see him flourishing.”
Five rookies have rushed for 1,000-yard seasons under Turner. Whatever Williams has in him, Turner will get it out of him.
“I love the way he coaches,” Lynch said. “He reminds me of the guys I was around in Tampa – the Rod Marinellis, Lovie Smiths, Herm Edwards, Mike Tomlin… He teaches offenses the way the guys in Tampa taught defense. They demanded a lot, but they were well liked. That’s the way Bobby Turner is.”