As soon as Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams felt the pain in his left ankle Aug. 22, he put the brakes on and blazed a trail directly to trainer Mike Goforth.
No need to be hard-headed about an injury and try to gut his way through it like he would have previously. He knew for a backfield already depleted by injuries, just getting to Saturday's opener against No. 5 Alabama in Atlanta was more important than showing off in another scrimmage. It was a sign of how much Williams' perspectives and approaches have changed.
"I used to never take care of my body well," said Williams, a 5-foot-10, 206-pound redshirt freshman originally from Newburgh, N.Y, who graduated from Stonewall Jackson High in Manassas. "If I had nagging injuries (in high school), I always wanted to rush back onto the field, and I'd re-injure it more instead of taking the time out.
"Being (at Tech), I'm using all the resources I can use. With the training room, I'm in there twice-a-day. I'm doing my treatment. I need to get back right because I feel like this year the team is really depending on me to be there to help them out."
Though Tech coaches haven't announced a starting tailback for Saturday, Williams has put himself in prime position with a strong preseason. After showing up out-of-shape at the start of August, he readily accepted his demotion from No. 2 to No. 3 on the depth chart — an experience he described as "humbling."
Yet, as soon as Darren Evans went down for the season Aug. 11 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Williams knew he had a chance to start.
Lingering injuries to fellow running backs Josh Oglesby (strained hamstring and infected heel blister) and David Wilson (sprained shoulder) helped Williams establish himself as Tech's most consistent tailback in scrimmages. He has described his running style as "undisciplined," but running backs coach Billy Hite disagrees.
"There are certain kids that are undisciplined, but he's not one of those kids," Hite said. "He used that term, and he was trying to say he runs to daylight. He needs to use proper terms when he's describing things. He's not undisciplined ... Ryan has made good decisions the entire time he's been here. Certain guys have not made good decisions when they've been here."
Tech's injury situation caused Williams to focus more on the big picture. He had 27 yards on six carries and an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown in the first scrimmage, but he removed himself from the second scrimmage as soon as he rolled his ankle to avoid further injury.
"Right now, we don't have any time to (mess) around," Williams said.
The big picture was foreign to Williams last year. Despite having just one healthy season in high school, he still came to Tech touted by most recruiting analysts as one of the nation's top five running backs. Williams called himself a "film back" — someone with impressive high school highlights who had to prove himself on the college field.
By the time he arrived in Blacksburg, Williams was aching to play. He thought he was going to get it as a true freshman, but Evans' emergence made it possible for Tech's coaches to redshirt Williams.
"The best words I can use are 'very discouraging'" Williams said. "From what I was told, I thought I was going to play somewhere. I wasn't told I was going to start anywhere, but I was told I was going to be somewhere on the field.
"My dream has always been to go to a top-notch school and play as a freshman and make an impact. A lot of things I thought were going to happen, didn't happen. ... I can't lie, I was down a lot of times (last season), but I continued to work hard on the field and in the weight room. I performed well in the spring, and I'm performing well (in preseason practices). I'm here. I'm ready."
Tech coach Frank Beamer has had the same impression. Then again, just being on the practice field before his recent ankle injury gave Williams an advantage over Evans, Oglesby and Wilson.
"He's been the one that's been able to practice," Beamer said. "We feel good about him. I think he's got a good future. We've just got to get him in there and see what happens. ... Opening up against a defense like Alabama's, that's not going to be easy, so we'll see how it goes."
Williams, who was still trying to get his ankle back to 100 percent late last week, is looking at the Alabama game as the next step in his audition. After a sub-par offseason and first year on campus that didn't go the way he planned, Williams believes he hasn't proven much yet.
"I feel like he won't make a decision until after the Alabama game," Williams said. "I think someone is going to start, but it's not going to be the definite starter. What I feel like is it's going to come down to who runs best against Alabama. I'll see what I can do."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun