When John Lynch learned Utah running back Joe Williams had walked away from his team for a month last season, his reaction was similar to that of the rest of the NFL.
“I was like, ‘uh uh -- not interested,’” Lynch, the 49ers general manager, said Saturday.
But the more he and coach Kyle Shanahan watched Williams slice through college defenses and the more the 49ers explored his background, the faster his opinion changed.
Before the fourth round began on Saturday, Lynch spoke to Williams on the phone. And a few hours after that, he drafted him with the 121st overall pick.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
“We got really comfortable with the kid and (had) a better understanding of what his story was,” Lynch said.
Despite missing four games last season, Williams ran for 1,407 yards and 10 touchdowns, including a 332-yard performance against UCLA and a 222-yard game against Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi’s Stadium.
“He has the ability to make all the cuts, the ability to be a very good ‘back in this league,” Kyle Shanahan said. “Now he’s got to do it and be consistent. And after talking with him … we feel very good about the guy. We know there are things we do have to help him with, but I think he can have a very bright future for us and for himself in the NFL.”
After concentrating on defense early in the draft, the 49ers switched to offense Saturday, including trading for Broncos running back Kapri Bibbs. The 49ers got Bibbs, 24, and a fifth-round pick from Denver in exchange for a fourth-round selection next year.
Other Saturday additions were tight end George Kittle, a strong blocker who once was roommates with third-round pick C.J. Beathard, prolific receiver Trent Taylor from Louisiana Tech, Mississippi nose tackle C.J. Jones, pass rusher Pita Taumoepenu and defensive back Adrian Colbert from Miami.
Williams was the biggest -- and most controversial -- addition.
He took a circuitous route to Utah, getting kicked off the University of Connecticut team in 2013 for using a teammate’s credit card. Then he decided to step away from the Utah program in September after citing mental and physical fatigue.
Williams said he was really wrestling with guilt.
His younger sister, Kylee, died in 2006 at age 7 due to an undiagnosed heart problem. She fell out of her bed one night and Williams blamed himself for not acting more quickly to save her.
“That’s when she died in my hands,” Williams said in recalling her death. “Just the guilt and shame that I had put upon myself, because I didn’t act quickly enough for, you know, with my parents or to call 9-1-1. I always thought that it was my fault.”
Lynch said running backs coach Bobby Turner spoke with Williams regularly -- to the point where they communicated on a daily basis -- and steadily became convinced that the running back should be considered. Lynch eventually came around as well after talking to Williams’ college coach, Kyle Whittingham, and finally speaking with Williams himself.
“Before I drafted a young man like that, I wanted to talk to him,” Lynch said of his Saturday morning phone call. “… He mentioned to me that throughout that process he kind of addressed some things that had been bothering him for some time and feels like he came out a different person. I think it’s a wonderful story.”