May 20, 2024

Kyren Williams already was a dedicated, detail-oriented rookie running back for the Rams.

But a 2022 midseason body-maintenance session inspired and pushed him even more.

It was early evening, and all the Rams except Williams and veteran linebacker Bobby Wagner were gone from the team’s Thousand Oaks training facility.

“Why are you still here?” Williams asked Wagner, a six-time All-Pro. “Why aren’t you at home?”

Wagner told Williams he stayed in the building until 8 or later every night to study film, to break down opponents individually, to hone a craft he had been mastering for more than a decade in the NFL.

Williams, recalling the exchange, asked himself a simple question: “If Bobby’s doing that, why not me?”

Since then, Williams has been a night owl — and an even keener student of the game, of the Rams’ offense and of upcoming opponents.

“I’ve always watched film,” Williams said, “it’s just taking it to the next level like Bobby did.”

In the Rams’ season-opening victory over the Seattle Seahawks, Williams’ preparation paid off. He scored his first two NFL touchdowns against a defense that included Wagner.

It paid dividends again last Sunday when, with Cam Akers inactive, Williams started for the first time and scored two touchdowns in a defeat to the San Francisco 49ers.

Rams running back Kyren Williams breaks free from the grasp of 49ers linebacker Fred Warner.

Rams running back Kyren Williams breaks free from the grasp of 49ers linebacker Fred Warner. He accounted for 100 yards from scrimmage against San Francisco.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Akers was traded to the Minnesota Vikings on Wednesday, so Williams will be the starter when the Rams play the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium on “Monday Night Football.”

It is a role Williams has dreamed about since growing up in St. Louis and playing at Notre Dame. But he is not overwhelmed.

“I don’t really look at it as an [individual] opportunity, because if you do that, you kind of start to think about other stuff that you don’t really need to think about,” he said. “This isn’t going to determine who I am as a football player.

“It’s an opportunity to help the team get a win.”

Williams is the lead back for a position group that includes Ronnie Rivers, Royce Freeman and rookie Zach Evans. The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Williams is a threat as a runner and receiver and has shown the ability to bounce back from mistakes.

Against the 49ers, Williams took his eyes off a perfect throw by quarterback Matthew Stafford. The ball glanced off Williams’ helmet and into the arms of a 49ers defensive back for an interception.

Williams put it behind him. He rushed for 52 yards and a touchdown in 14 carries and caught six passes for 48 yards and a touchdown. He played 76 of 80 snaps on offense and four on special teams.

“He’s got kind of a complete feel for the game,” offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said, “and then when you’re willing to put in the work, and you’re already talented, that’s what shows.

“I don’t think he’s scratched the surface yet of what he’s capable of doing.”

Williams’ 17 months with the Rams have not been without trying times.

After the Rams selected him in the fifth round of last year’s draft, he impressed coaches during initial offseason workouts. However, a foot injury that required surgery sidelined him through most of training camp.

While players went through drills at UC Irvine, Williams attempted to stay connected while doing rehab work on the side.

Rams running back Kyren Williams (23) celebrates his first half touchdown against San Francisco with teammates.

Teammates appreciate the blocking skills of Kyren Williams (23) along with his running and pass-catching abilities.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“I had the walkie-talkie and microphone, listening to all the play calls,” he said.

Williams was activated for the start of the season but suffered an ankle injury while covering a kickoff in the opener against the Buffalo Bills. He sat out seven games and returned to rush for 139 yards in the final nine.

“I learned I could get through anything I put my mind to,” he said of overcoming injuries.

Williams’ physical skills are obvious to teammates, but his attention to detail also stands out.

“Lots of times, we get to the end of a play call and I’m tagging the back’s route or something and he’s already on it, knowing exactly what he’s got,” Stafford said, adding that Williams is “super dialed in” on pass protection.

Offensive linemen also praise Williams for his blocking.

“He’s going to bring the juice and be ready to go almost to a fault at some point,” veteran tackle Rob Havenstein said, chuckling. “If his job is to kind of help a little bit, he wants to come over and blast the guy off.

“You’re blocking a guy and, all of a sudden, he gets sent across the formation. You’re like, ‘Geez, man, calm down a bit.’ But you love it.”

Said center Coleman Shelton: “He’s always there as our sixth protector.”

New running backs coach Ron Gould said Williams’ impressive start did not occur by chance. Williams puts in the work on and off the field.

“Seems like he’s here almost as long as coaches at times,” Gould said.

Williams has prepared each week as if he was going to start, so no need to change anything now, Gould said.

“The biggest thing,” Gould said, “was just to let him know: stay with your routine, stay with what you do. And everything’s going to be fine.”

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