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'It was just like a weight lifted off of me': RB Javonte Williams returns from knee injury to make preseason debut

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Running back Javonte Williams beat the expected recovery timeline for the knee injury that prematurely ended his 2022 season, and the Broncos wasted no time giving Williams the chance to make plays in his preseason debut against the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday.

Head Coach Sean Payton called a screen pass for Williams on the Broncos' first play from scrimmage, and though Williams couldn't corral it, he quickly made amends. On the next snap, quarterback Russell Wilson found Williams — who was split out wide — for a 12-yard gain. The play, which resulted in a first down for the Broncos, also doubled as the first time Williams was tackled since his injury against the Raiders.

"It was just like a weight lifted off of me," Williams said of the first time he was tackled in the game. "I was thinking it was going to hurt or something, but I really didn't even feel it. I just jumped back up."

Williams finished his evening with four receptions for 18 yards and rushed three times for 12 yards, but his proudest achievement in the game was rebounding from getting tackled without significant pain.

"I was still just thinking [heading into the game that] I got hurt the last time I got tackled," Williams said. "There was a lot of nerves going into it, but once I got it out of the way, I felt pretty good."

Williams who said he feels — "100 percent" — became a crucial part of Denver's scoring drive, serving as the rusher or intended receiver on the Broncos' first four offensive plays. That stretch included a 12-yard completion immediately following the incomplete screen and a four-yard catch on an improvised flip from Wilson. Williams also opened the next Denver drive with an eight-yard rush, his longest of the night.

While Williams was the Broncos' top option on the ground in 2021 — recording 904 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns — he was also a factor in the passing game that season, catching 43 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns. That side of Williams' game was on display at Levi's Stadium, even more than his rushing abilities.

"He's a guy that loves the game," Wilson said of Williams. "He's so smart, [a] great teammate. And he was poised and ready to rock from the very beginning of training camp. And it was great to see him back out there. What a great feeling to see your star running back … back touching the ball, making plays, doing the things that he does best."

Payton said after Thursday's training camp practice that he hoped to get Williams "three or four carries" and potentially a reception. Williams exceeded those totals, though Payton said some of those receptions didn't feature the star running back as the primary option.

The Broncos' defensive players might be as excited about Williams' return to the Broncos' backfield as the offense. Outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper said he's been encouraged by Williams' return to full health and knows Williams' presence will make for a more dangerous offense.

"Javonte is one of the best running backs in the league, and it's phenomenal to have him back," Cooper said. "I just think after his injury last year, we took a real hard hit to our offensive stuff, missing him the whole entire year. But now that he's back and he's healthy and he's good, it just adds to our offense even more, and we're really excited to have him back, really glad he's healthy. I can't wait to see what he does this year."

Williams may not see the field again until Denver's Week 1 matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders on Sept. 10, but gaining momentum and confidence from his performance against the 49ers has made him even more amped up for the 2023 season.

"I'm even more excited," Williams said. "Just seeing the way that we improved from last week to this week, the O-Line and everybody like that, it just looks promising for us, and hopefully we will translate over to the next preseason game and to the regular season."

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