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September 15, 2023

Devonte Williams quietly leading REDBLACKS

Hamilton Tiger-Cats vs Ottawa REDBLACKS September 8, 2023 PHOTO: André Ringuette/Freestyle Photography

In Week 14, Devonte Williams put the CFL on notice, rushing for 146 yards, while amassing another 69 through the air. A breakout game, some would say, but it has been a long time in the making.

A look at the league’s leading backs turns up some big names – Brady Oliviera with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, A.J. Oulette with the Toronto Argonauts, and James Butler with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but when you sort by average yards per carry, Williams’ name shoots up the sheet.

With significantly fewer touches than most backs in the conversation for rushing yards leader, Williams has toted the rock for 5.73 yards each time he touches the ball, good for third in the league among running backs.

“He’s been incredibly coachable, which is amazing,” said REDBLACKS’ Running Backs Coach Nate Taylor. “He’s a very dynamic athlete, maybe one of the best in the league, and the game has slowed down a bit for him. He’s become more patient in his reads, and he’s trusting himself to get through tight quarters with a quick burst. Those things have elevated his game.”

Williams made his CFL debut last season, when he stepped up to fill a role left vacant by an injury to William Powell to start the year. Previously, he had little experience, but had spent some time with the Blue Bombers on their practice roster. It was there he picked up words of wisdom from talented backs, including future Hall of Famer, Andrew Harris.

“Andrew helped me out from time to time,” Williams said. “He gave me little tips and pointers, since he had been dominant up here for so long. He and I still have a good relationship, I still talk to him sometimes.”

In his first year in Ottawa, Williams showed some promise, and coming into training camp in 2023, he earned the starting job. There were some noticeable differences between seasons, Taylor says, which allowed him to step up with confidence.

“He’s grown quite a bit,” he explained. “He’s taken the role of a guy who can contribute to the offence, and he’s put an onus on himself to be explosive and make plays as often as possible. Through that, he has taken his own version of a leadership role, leading by example on the field.”

You won’t hear him yelling at his teammates trying to get them going, and he’s not going to spout off a speech made for movies, but you will see Williams running hard in practice, or fighting for every inch in games.

Primarily, that’s because the fame and hype aren’t what matters for the 26-year-old, it’s winning ball games, and giving his teammates an opportunity to make their own plays.

“I’m just trying to do what I can do,” Williams said. “We have to put points up. When we get to the point where we’re playing complementary football, then we’ll start winning our games.”

Even with the disappointing loss last week, Williams didn’t point fingers, instead taking some of the blame.

“He holds himself to an incredibly high standard,” Taylor said. “The more he has become comfortable with the system and the way he’s being coached, he has been able to reach those standards.”

Now, as the REDBLACKS stare down a 3-9 record, Williams says there’s plenty of belief, but there’s no more room for error.

“We have to win,” he said. “We’re in the playoffs right now. We can’t afford any more losses. I wholeheartedly believe that [we are better than our record suggests], but we have to put it on film. When we all come together, I don’t think anybody can play with us.”