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The farcical thought surely occurred to a few of the fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium, as they watched Armand Shyne writhing in pain in the fourth quarter of a win over Arizona: The Utes had been so badly beaten up by injuries, maybe Kyle Whittingham would pluck a spectator from his seat and play him at running back.

Only it wasn't a joke. The Utes did it. The spectator — sitting in section 37, row 10 — happened to have prior experience.

It wasn't much of a surprise either: Joe Williams figured the call might come.

It turned out to be a series of calls: One from graduate assistant Nick Alaimalo, one from running backs coach Dennis Erickson; FaceTime calls from Kenric Young and Brian Allen; and then a call from Kyle Whittingham himself. Williams took some time before ambling up to the Utah football offices on Guardsman Way to tell them what he wanted to do.

"I just wanted to take some time to reflect on it before I made my decision," he said. "But deep down I knew I was gonna come back to help the team out."

The 23-year-old running back affirmed his decision to come back a week ago Monday, practiced for the first time Tuesday, then Saturday ran against Oregon State for a season-best 179 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries — a production workload that almost no one saw coming after he returned from a 28-day hitatus.

In the two games he played before leaving the program in September, Williams looked sluggish, lacking urgency. He had 75 yards in two games and fumbled twice, leading to a moment captured by television cameras against BYU: Whittingham shouting at him on the sidelines, wondering where his head was at, before sending him to the bench.

The Williams who arrived in Corvallis looked different: agile, quick and driven. He burst through holes with the speed that topped the roster in the spring.

It came as a surprise to many, including Whittingham, that Williams would be able to run so well after a month off — but not to Cory Butler-Byrd, one of Williams' closest friends on the team.

"He looked way more fresh, way more confident," the senior receiver said after the game. "He looked like he had a lot more energy. In the beginning of the year, he wasn't breaking as many tackles as he was today."

That's the perception around the program: Something changed about Joe Williams in those 28 days between the announcement of his retirement and his swift return. Williams said he was motivated by the injuries at running back: His chief competitors to start at the beginning of the year, Troy McCormick and Zack Moss, have each missed the past two games. Shyne is out for the year.

But as to why he thought he could handle all the things he worried about when he retired — injuries, time demands, stress — for the final three months of the season, is a bit harder to articulate.

On Monday, after spending the morning in the training room for the same kinds of bumps and bruises that he said last month led him to leave football, Williams said he's now more balanced.

"Just more better managed now," he said. "I got a better psyche towards all that. I was in a different place when I decided to leave. I guess I came back a different person."

But the player who rejoined the Utes was the same teammate he's always been, many say. He stayed close with Butler-Byrd, and he and his fiancee became godparents when Butler-Byrd's son was born three weeks ago. Quarterback Troy Williams, who is taking classes with Joe Williams this semester, said it was "like he never left."

Williams was a "big brother" to freshman running back Devonta'e Henry-Cole, showing him his way to class, and helping him with his footwork after practice. Henry-Cole said it was only natural for the running backs to show him the same courtesy when Williams returned last week.

"We all love Joe," he said. "We're happy that Joe came back to help the team and everything. Joe's a good guy."

Williams said he was a little wary that teammates might not all feel overjoyed that he was coming back. He missed a month's worth of practices, and wasn't there when Utah suffered its only loss this season. But a unanimous vote by the team's leadership council convinced him that he was in good standing.

Butler-Byrd doesn't blame Williams for leaving in the first place. The team has a motto: "All In or In The Way." Williams' mindset might've been standing in his way last month, and Butler-Byrd believes that could have put him at risk.

"Football is not a game you want to play when your head's not right — that's when you get life-threatening injuries," he said. "For him to step away from the game, that took a lot of heart, a lot of guts. I felt like that was the right thing to do if he didn't want to play anymore. Now that he's back, he looks way fresher: mind right, looking good."

Williams said he was disappointed by his fade in the fourth quarter against the Beavers, particularly being stopped twice on fourth-down conversion attempts. He said he's redoubling his effort to get back into shape by the UCLA game on Saturday, and definitely for facing No. 5 Washington next week.

For 28 days, he lived the life of a spectator. Now he's back.

And all in.

Twitter: @kylegoon —

Back in the game

A timeline of the 23-year-old running back Joe Williams' Utah career:

Nov. 14, 2015 • Replaces Devontae Booker against Arizona, runs for 37 yards

Nov. 21, 2015 • Makes first start for Utes, runs for 121 yards on 26 carries vs. UCLA

Nov. 28, 2015 • Rushes for a career-high 187 yards on 34 carries with a TD against Colorado

Sept. 10, 2016 • Fumbles for second time in season vs. BYU, benched at halftime but returns later to finish with 26 yards

Sept. 13, 2016 • Announces his retirement from football to the media

Oct. 11, 2016 • Kyle Whittingham announces Williams has returned to the team

Oct. 15, 2016 • Starts against Oregon State and rushes for season-best 179 yards, first TD of season

No. 19 Utah at UCLA

P Saturday, 2 p.m.

TV • Ch. 13