SPARTANBURG — When going over the playbook with first-year offensive coordinator Mike Shula, running back DeAngelo Williams will occasionally ask his coach what he ideally wants out of the play.
What’s the intended yardage? Does Shula want his back to get 2, 3 or 4 yards?
“He always laughs at me because he’ll say, ‘Well I want it to go 3 yards,’ because after I get the 3 yards it’s my show,” Williams said. “I can do whatever I want to do after that. If it’s designed to get 3 or 4 and I get that 3 or 4, after that you can make a guy miss and take it the distance, that’s all on you.”
It has been Williams’ show this training camp. Long-time running mate Jonathan Stewart is on the physically unable to perform list still recovering from offseason ankle surgery. With a renewed emphasis in the running game under Shula, Williams is making the most of his opportunity.
The franchise’s all-time leading rusher, Williams went from last season’s opening day starter to a Week 7 backup getting two carries, then rebounded to set the team record with 210 rushing yards in the Week 17 finale.
He let his frustrations with the play calling be known midway through last season, but on Friday said he went through a reformation last year.
“I’m a role player, and I’m going to play my role,” Williams said. “Whatever role they need me to play in order for us to win games, I’m going to do that. It doesn’t matter what I think, it’s what the coaches want, and what they know.”
High expectations, slow start
With more than $80 million in contract money between Stewart and Williams, the team seemed destined to utilize its backs as effectively as it did in 2009 when the duo ran for more than 1,110 yards each.
But through the first five games, Williams, who before last year had started in 49 of his previous 51 games, was the starting running back on a team that averaged less than 100 rushing yards. The coaching staff decided to switch it up when the Panthers’ ground game couldn’t find its stride.
Rivera and former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski turned to Stewart. Williams, meanwhile, endured getting seven carries or fewer in five of the next six games.
After Carolina’s 19-14 loss to Dallas in Week 7 in which Williams carried the ball twice for 4 yards, Williams took his frustration to Twitter, where he retweeted several fans who were dismayed by his use.
“I was a little bit upset, well not necessarily upset, it bothered me a little bit that I didn’t get the opportunities that I thought I should have gotten,” said Williams, who added his demotion wasn’t the cause of his frustration. “That lasted for one game because as a team player you can’t feel like that. If this is what it takes to win games, then this is what I’m willing to do.”
Rivera knew Williams wanted more carries, but he was impressed with how well Williams ultimately handled the situation.
“He handled it like a true pro,” Rivera said. “He practiced hard and gave great looks. He helped his teammates out, and that is what it’s about. When you’re called upon you do your job and when you’re not you keep doing your job and that’s what he did.”
Williams got his job back when Stewart went on injured reserve with a sprained ankle in Week 12. In the final five games of the season, Williams racked up 445 rushing yards, 140 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
Williams’ 737 rushing yards fell four yards behind Newton’s team-leading total, making Newton the fourth quarterback in NFL history to lead his team in rushing.
This offseason the Panthers and new general manager Dave Gettleman approached Williams about restructuring his contract. With the Panthers needing salary cap space for 2012 and beyond, Williams had his 2013 base salary cut from $4.75 million to $850,000.
He recouped $4 million as part of a signing bonus, but the real cuts will come in the next two seasons, where instead of nearly $13 million in base salary he’ll make less than $4 million plus option bonuses and incentives.
Williams declined to comment Friday on his contract.
‘Now or never’
It took Cam Newton just one practice to see the look in Williams’ eyes, one the quarterback said he had never seen from the running back before.
“He has that look in his eye like it’s now or never,” Newton said. “It’s not panicked. It’s an intensity. He’s like the time is now for us. I know that is what you need as a team, from a leader.”
Williams called this year a clean slate with Shula as the new offensive coordinator. Williams expects a re-emphasis on the running game, as well as more rushing than passing after Carolina passed the ball 490 times last year compared with 462 rushes.
But the past two years have taught him something about getting the ball in camp and expecting the same to happen in the regular season.
“The last two years I saw it in camp. I saw it in practice. I saw it all the way up until game time, and then that light switch came on to where we threw it more than we ran it,” Williams said. “But I think we’re going back to the traditional football in terms of where the run and the pass complement each other.
“It’s kind of one of those things where I’m not going to scream it out and yell that I want the ball. I’m going to do it with my actions.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9