Ask Damien Williams about most anything, and he will smile.
But ask Williams about the two years he spent in Yuma, Arizona, and he will groan.
“Whoa, God,” Williams, the Dolphins’ fourth-year running back, said a few days before Sunday’s must-win game against the Buccaneers.
“Coming from San Diego, California, to Yuma, Arizona, was slow,” Williams said. “The closest gas station is miles and miles away. Nobody has a car. We’re all from out of state. It was hard being in the desert, being somewhere you’re not really familiar to. It was different. It was very different.”
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Here’s another topic that will get Williams introspective: How his time in Norman, Oklahoma, ended.
Then-Oklahoma Sooners coach Bob Stoops kicked his star running back off the team with three games left in the 2013 season.
“Don’t take anything for granted,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, where my mindset was and being a starter, coming from a [junior college], starting after the third game, I started getting above myself. Rules didn’t apply. I felt like I was above everything, and that brought me back down to reality.”
This is Williams 2017 reality: He beat the odds.
After the Dolphins traded the moody and difficult Jay Ajayi to Philadelphia, they named Williams and Kenyan Drake as the league’s unlikeliest co-starters.
And four years after his far-flung college odyssey ended in embarrassment, Williams has used his past as fuel.
He escaped the edge of the country and later football purgatory with a relentless drive, an infectious attitude and a singular focus.
“This is what he loves doing,” said Dolphins coach Adam Gase, perhaps Williams’ No. 1 advocate in the organization. “He doesn’t want to do anything else, he has no interest in anything else. It’s fun to be around a guy like that.”
He is enjoying the ride. He is easily the loudest player in the Dolphins’ locker room. But Williams has plenty of bite to go along with his bite.
Jarvis Landry is probably the grittiest player on the Dolphins roster. But Williams is a close second.
Two plays in particular capture Williams’ screw-the-odds disposition.
The first came on Oct. 23 of last year, when he carried half the Bills’ defense into the end zone on a 12-yard run.
The second was in the Dolphins’ loss to Oakland two weeks ago, when he bounced off two Raiders defenders and then leaped over the goal line on a touchdown catch-and-run.
The most recent highlight let Williams show off his personality as well his ability. He shimmied suggestively in the end zone, taking full advantage of the league’s liberalized celebration rules.
But given Williams’ path, he is allowed to boogie from time to time.
Williams was a three-star recruit out of Mira Mesa High School and signed a letter of intent to attend Arizona State. But his ACT scores were too low to enroll as a freshman. Sun Devils coaches suggest he attend Arizona Western, a little-known JuCo, to get his grades right and acclimate himself to the weather.
Think the town itself was bleak? It had nothing on the football program, which was all but broke. Players had to pay for their own gear; those who could not were allowed to pick from the hand-me-down bin.
“Being there, you do a lot of visualizing, a lot of picturing,” Williams said. “It was like, I pictured myself leaving here and going somewhere better and being somewhere better. It actually pushes you to get out of there, actually, which is why they became such a great team. ... It pushes guys — hey, if this is where you want to be at, or this is where you want to end your career, this is what you’re going to remember?”
The answer for Williams was no. He did his time and got eligible to play for a big-time college program. But by that point, Dennis Erickson, the ASU coach who recruited him, had been fired. So Williams became a free agent, and decided ultimately to chase a national championship at Oklahoma.
He played with Kenny Stills, who would later be his teammate in Miami, and helped the Sooners go 10-3 as a junior. He rushed for a team-best 946 yards and 11 touchdowns, and looked for either greater things the next year.
And might have achieved them, if not for immaturity.
Stoops suspended Williams for a game in September of 2013, and then removed him from the team permanently two months later for violating teams.
Once again, he was off the football map — and at the worst possible time. The NFL Draft was just a few months off. Williams was not one of the 256 eligible players picked the following spring, and he believes his dismissal was a major reason why.
“To only play my junior year and some of my senior year, so it was like, you don’t have too much film,” Williams said. “And it’s like character issues. The league had a whole bunch of stuff going on around the time, similar, you know, substance abuses. I knew I was going to have some explaining to do. At the end of the day, it all worked out.”
Did it ever. Williams landed in Miami as a rookie free agent, buried on a depth chart behind Lamar Miller, Knowshon Mareno and Daniel Thomas. His margin for error was zero. And yet, he made the team.
“I just remember from the first time, him coming out here the first couple of weeks, he flashed immediately as a guy that I thought, athletically could do a lot of different things,” said Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi. “His toughness, he showed in that first preseason when he got here that he wasn’t afraid to block, tackle, cover and do all of those things.”
But it was not until Gase took over in 2016 that Williams really popped. The two men are kindred spirits — both bold, emotional and driven.
They have connected in a way Gase never could with Ajayi. Williams is selfless, open to coaching and willing to do anything. And he is talented enough for the Dolphins to feel comfortable dealing their leading rusher to Philly for a fourth-round pick.
“I think, just watching him improve, the attention to detail that he has, the pride he has to make sure he’s doing things right,” Gase said. “If he makes a mistake, you’re probably not going to see the same mistake twice. ... He’s a relentless runner and he’s a fun guy to watch and a fun guy to coach. When he goes to practice, it’s full speed all the time. It doesn’t matter if we’re in a walk-through, he’s going a little faster than anyone else.”