SportsPulse: It may be the strongest division top to bottom. It’s the NFC West and it very well could represent the NFC in the Super Bowl for the third straight year.
A wave of emotions overcame Trent Williams at his first San Francisco 49ers practice last month.
Nearly 20 full months had passed since he last donned an NFL uniform. But at last, he was poised to lay the groundwork for a season that could put him in the running for the Comeback Player of the Year Award. At last, he could resume his pursuit of enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But most importantly, he finally has received a chance to help a legitimate Super Bowl contender achieve its goal.
“I was just grateful, man,” Williams told USA TODAY Sports. “It was kind of emotional — not that I was in tears — but just knowing how long I had to wait and how many obstacles were in front of me prior to getting those pads back on… To come to such a storied franchise … to be a part of that lineage, it’s a dream come true.”
Williams went onto to describe the varying feelings that washed over him in that return to the game.
The 2019 calendar year featured so much turmoil. A contract dispute. A health scare in the form of a cancerous tumor on his scalp — a matter he alleged his previous team in Washington had downplayed for years until an independent surgeon ordered surgery. Repeated requests for a fresh start, either through trade or release, were denied for a full year until a new regime agreed to ship him to San Francisco last April.
The NFL overhauled its offseason in light of the coronavirus pandemic, so no organized team activities or minicamps meant Day 1 of training camp represented Williams’ first introduction to his new teammates and surroundings. He wondered how he would fit in and how long it would take to recapture his seven-time Pro Bowl form.
There was no way to temper expectations. Not with his résumé, and not with this team. Unlike the perpetually rebuilding squads for which Williams played nine previous seasons, the 49ers rank among the league’s elite after just falling short in Super Bowl LIV. They look to Williams to fill the massive void left by the retirement of Joe Staley, who in 13 seasons earned six Pro Bowl nods, three second-team All-Pro selections and a selection to the 2010s All-Decade Team.
Football is football, Williams reminded himself. And the familiar faces of head coach Kyle Shanahan and six assistants Williams played under to start his career in Washington gave the offensive tackle a sense of home. They spoke his language. They had helped shape him as a pro football player.
Gratitude. Excitement. Determination.
“I think this was probably the best destination for me, and it was my No. 1 destination the whole time along, seeing where I would go,” Williams said. “I was hoping this opportunity would present itself, so I was thankful for that. … A lot of (these coaches), I’ve been knowing for the last decade. So that kind of eased me into it.
“This team is full of great guys, easy to get along with, great locker room. I’m blessed to have that kind of environment, so that helped ease the nerves.”
Now a month into his tenure as a member of the 49ers, and just more than a week away from the 2020 regular season opener, Williams has settled in. He’s still making up for lost time, but each day Williams feels more like his old self while confirming to his teammates and coaches exactly why Niners brass brought him into the fold.
“Trent is definitely one of the most athletic O-lineman I’ve ever seen,” running back Raheem Mostert told reporters last Thursday. “Just the way he moves out there. He gets to his blocks quick, and he makes our decisions — cutting and stuff like that — easier. Like I said, it’s truly a blessing having him out there.”
Williams has lofty goals, all involving his team’s success. He hasn’t circled any of the looming faceoffs with elite pass-rushers that the schedule holds. Williams wants to win them all. If he does, he could help usher the 49ers back to the Super Bowl.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel pressure. Obviously, I put a lot of pressure on myself. … But it is what it is. Pressure makes diamonds,” Williams said. “Over here, there’s a different aura of confidence. Everybody expects to be great. They expect to win. They expect to be in the Super Bowl again. It’s a different feeling.”
In Washington, Williams scarcely attended the voluntary portion of the offseason program, and he rarely played in the preseason. This year, however, he wishes he had those opportunities due to his need to re-acclimate himself to the game.
Instead, he’s relying heavily on second-year pass-rusher Nick Bosa, who last season earned Pro Bowl and defensive rookie of the year honors.
“It’s very challenging,” Williams said. “He very seldom gives you the same thing twice. He learns you extremely fast. He pretty much picked up on everything I did in the first three or four days. … I’m just lucky to have him to help whip me back into shape and whip me back into game speed and really get some of the best work I’ll have all season because he’s easily top five.”
Bosa, meanwhile, described their showdowns as challenging, educational and at times frustrating.
“He’s got a low center of gravity and it’s tough to power underneath him. He plays so low to the ground and can bend so well that he’s not up high and doesn’t expose himself to power,” Bosa, who recorded nine sacks last year, told reporters this week. “Normal moves I’d be happy with and would beat other linemen pretty easily, he’s right there in your hip pocket with a burst. His ability to recover is pretty elite. ”
After one recent bout with Williams, Bosa walked over to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and predicted he will have plenty of time to throw this year.
“I’m definitely confident in Jimmy’s left side,” Bosa said. “Not that the rest of the line isn’t great, but having Trent is a huge, huge help for him.”
That’s exactly what Williams wants.
For so long, he craved the opportunity to use his skills to help a team pursue greatness. His health scare and ensuing conflict-filled season away from the game only strengthened that resolve. Now, Williams counts his blessings.
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