We looked at him a couple of times this year. He’s the closest thing we had to Andre (Ellington) If Andre would have went down, then we would have turned to him sooner. – Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians
Sports injuries can end seasons. There’s potential for them to cut short careers and trip up championship runs before they materialize.
But injuries can also open doors.
Former Utah State running back Kerwynn Williams is a testament to that.
Given the opportunity to step up when fellow back Andre Ellington was lost for the season, Williams responded by rushing for 100 yards on 19 carries to help the Arizona Cardinals beat the Kansas City Chiefs 17-14 on Sunday. It was the first game Williams has registered carries in his two-year NFL career.
On the Cardinals’ final drive, he carried the ball seven times, including a key 16-yard pickup on second-and-10. That drive capped the first 100-yard rushing day by an Arizona running back this season.
“It’s definitely humbling that the coaching staff had the confidence in me to get the job done and to give me that opportunity in the first place,” Williams told the Deseret News.
“It was exciting. Just being able to help contribute was huge.”
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians was equally enthused to see one of his running backs jump from the practice squad just days before and fill an important role in the game.
"That’s what the game’s all about — getting an opportunity," Arians said in his Monday news conference. "I’ve always said, one guy’s injury’s another opportunity. He jumped on his chance."
Not that long ago, Williams was enjoying a solid senior season at Utah State, after waiting his turn behind fellow backs Robert Turbin and Michael Smith, both of whom also went on to the NFL. Williams finished the 2012 season with over 2,200 combined rushing and receiving yards, as well as 20 touchdowns, and in his final college game, Williams rushed for 235 yards and three touchdowns in the Aggies' bowl win over Toledo.
"I’m really happy for Kerwynn and his performance for the Cardinals this Sunday. It epitomizes everything that Kerwynn Williams is about,” Utah State second-year head coach Matt Wells told the Deseret News. Wells was the offensive coordinator at USU when Williams had his breakthrough year in 2012. “Waiting around for his chance, being very patient, and when he gets his chance, he shines. That’s exactly what he did during his time here at Utah State. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s doing it in the NFL. We’re very proud of him."
At 5-foot-8, Williams is the shortest player on a Cardinals roster filled with a bevy of key players under 6 feet, including safeties Tyrann Mathieu, Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson, wide receivers John Brown and Ted Ginn, and cornerback Jerraud Powers.
Most of his time in Arizona has been spent on the practice squad, preparing the defense for the upcoming game by mimicking a player, like a top running back, from the upcoming opponent. Last week, his role was to impersonate all-Pro running back Jamaal Charles.
"Every week you’re on the scout team, you have to do your best to give your team a good look so they can be ready on Sunday," Williams said.
The plan changed for him on Friday, when Arizona cut Michael Bush, an eight-year veteran running back whom the team signed on Nov. 25, and put Williams back on the active roster.
"I just had a feeling he was going to have that type of game, just because of the way he’s practiced the last few weeks," Arians said. "Like I said yesterday, he’s the only guy on the field that made you go ‘wow’ for the last couple weeks. And our defensive players saw it, too."
Williams finished the day with nine more rushing yards than Charles, the man he impersonated, though the Kansas City back scored twice and added 20 receiving yards.
Still, it was tough to see a fellow back go down.
"You never want to see a player not being able to play because of injury. It’s always tough," Williams said of Ellington, the starter who was placed on injured reserve on Monday. Arians said Ellington needs surgery to repair a hernia.
But it's a resilient Cardinals team. In addition to Ellington, quarterback Carson Palmer and defensive end Darnell Dockett are gone for the year with ACL tears. That just scratches the surface of the team's injury woes in 2014. Yet Arizona sits at 10-3, currently atop the NFC West by a game over Seattle and controlling its own destiny to own the No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC.
"To be able to be around a group of guys that rally around each other like that, the way our team does, is definitely inspiring," Williams said. "I think it’s something as a young player that can help you develop in the future into a better player."
Now he has the chance to prove himself, surrounded by a running back crew he finds easy connections with. Williams, Ellington and Stepfan Taylor are all in their second year in the NFL.
“Us having that in common, it definitely gives us the common ground on how we go about things. We all think similarly when it comes to playing," Williams said. "It’s always good to be able to bounce off ideas on what they see when they’re out there.
“Having those guys with me in the meeting room is definitely big.”
Arians said Monday that Taylor, who earned the start against the Chiefs, will still be listed as the starter in the team's running-back-by-committee scheme. But as for Williams, “He’ll get his chances to do it again.”
"We looked at him a couple of times this year. He’s the closest thing we had to Andre," Arians said of the former Aggie. "If Andre would have went down, then we would have turned to him sooner."
Williams can also lean on the knowledge of his coaches, including Arians — who many consider to be the leading candidate for the league's coach of the year — and running backs coach Stump Mitchell, a former NFL running back.
"Coach Mitchell did a good job preparing me for if that day would ever come," Williams said. "He made sure I was on top of my stuff in the playbook and everything that was going on."
How will Williams' opportunity turn out? The next test comes Thursday night in a divisional matchup at St. Louis, where the stakes will be high with playoff positioning on the line.
That contest and the one the next week against Seattle present Williams the chance to face old Utah State teammates. First-year safety Maurice Alexander is with the Rams now, while linebacker Bobby Wagner plays a key role on the Seahawks' defense and Turbin backs up Seattle's Marshawn Lynch.
"That will definitely be different seeing them in different uniforms and being on the other side of the field from them. I went against Bobby a lot in college when we were playing together. That will bring back some old memories," Williams said, pointing out that while seeing them in person will be different, they talk all the time.
"It will be different, but I always wish the best for all my old teammates."
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @brandonljudd