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Buffalo Bills running backs Jonathan Williams, Mike Tolbert explode in preseason opener

Jonathan Williams and Mike Tolbert showing they can step up when called upon.

When the Buffalo Bills opted not to match running back Mike Gillislee’s restricted free agent offer sheet from the New England Patriots during the offseason, the hope was backup Jonathan Williams would step in and fill Gillislee’s role as LeSean McCoy’s insurance policy. If Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Minnesota Vikings is any indicator, the Bills might have two backs capable of contributing behind Shady.

Williams, a 2016 fifth-round draft pick out of the University of Arkansas, rushed for just 94 yards on 27 carries (3.5 yards per carry) during his first season in Orchard Park but hee wasted little time during the first preseason game, displaying patience, elusiveness, and big-play potential vs. Minnesota. Williams finished with 39 yards on four carries (9.8 yards per run) with a nifty 17-yard scamper sprinkled in while running behind Buffalo’ offensive line, a unit that led the league in rushing yards per game (164.4) in 2016.

On his first rush of the preseason, Williams took the handoff from quarterback Tyrod Taylor and burst up the middle for nine yards, but a penalty on Richie Incognito nullified the gain. His first official run went for 17 yards on a third-down carry, and followed that with a 15-yard run off left tackle on the first play of Buffalo’s second possession.

That kind of excellent vision caught Taylor’s eye.

“He’s always been a patient runner,” Taylor said during the postgame press conference. “That’s one of the things I told him when I first met him, I love his patience in the backfield. He’s a shifty runner. Once he sees a hole he gets downfield fast. It’s good to see him going out there and creating plays in the running game. It was big for us.”

Williams knows he still has to prove himself to first-year head coach Sean McDermott and new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. The biggest red flag of Williams’ brief tenure in Buffalo was ball security as he lost a pair of fumbles among his 27 carries.

“Every day we go out there as a team and we go out there and grind,” Williams said following the Vikings game. “Day in and day out you know always coaching and stuff. Day in and day out. ... Them running back boys, running behind LeSean McCoy, we are right behind him. They do a great job in practice.”

While the game featured plenty of positives for Williams, he did strain his hamstring, an injury Williams said was “not bad at all” and that he could have continued playing if the team needed him. He returned to practice with no limitations on Sunday.

“I was impressed,” McDermott said of Williams. “He ran hard, secured the ball and we have to evaluate the whole game though. What happens in pass protection and we’ll get a better chance to do that tomorrow. That said I thought he did some good things with the ball in his hand.”

With Williams on the sidelines, new acquisition Mike Tolbert took his crack at impressing the coaches, rushing for 27 yards on four carries (6.8 yards/run) with a bruising 15-yard rush that set up Stephen Hauschka’s 42-yard field goal.

Tolbert, who is listed as 5-foot-9 and 250 pounds, sits second on the team’s official depth chart at fullback, but has previous experience at running back. He has rushed for more than 2,400 yards (averaging 3.8 yards/rush) during previous stints with the Carolina Panthers and San Diego Chargers. His most successful season came with the Chargers in 2010, when he scored 11 touchdowns while rushing for 735 yards (4.0 yards/rush).

It’s only one preseason game, but Williams and Tolbert showed they are more than capable of handling the rushing duties should McCoy suffer another injury.