Tom Smart, Deseret News
PROVO — When sophomore running back Jamaal Williams committed to BYU over Pac-12 schools like Oregon, he surprised many of his friends and family members.
They wondered why he would choose to attend an LDS school in Utah.
But after a freshman season that saw Williams set BYU true freshman records for carries (166), yards (775) and touchdowns (12), they don’t wonder so much anymore.
“They were a little iffy about me coming here at first,” said Williams, a 6-foot, 200-pound native of Fontana, Calif. “They wondered why I did it. But now, they’re grateful I came here. They like that I’m doing great things here and showing all of the high schoolers back home that you don’t have to go to the most popular school to have a big impact on the team. You can go to the regular schools, like BYU, somewhere that’s not really known about, and you can make a big impact. People now know about BYU more from not just me but other players, too. My family members and friends have more info about BYU. I have cousins getting recruited, and I can tell them how I feel about it.”
Williams, who is not LDS, played last fall as a 17-year-old — he didn't turn 18 until last spring. And he's eager to build on his strong freshman campaign. Going into his sophomore season, which starts Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, ESPNU) at Virginia, he is coming off an impressive fall camp.
“Jamaal’s good to where you don’t notice him. You just expect it,” said coach Bronco Mendenhall. “He’s just been consistent, steady and good the entire camp.”
At Arizona, where BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae spent the past two seasons, Ka’Deem Carey led the nation in rushing in 2012. Could Williams carry a similar load for the Cougars this season?
“Jamaal can handle whatever we give him,” Mendenhall said. “I like him a lot.”
Added Mendenhall: “I don’t think the yards are as important to him or to me. He’s all about the team. That’s what’s fun about him. And he works so hard. For a freshman who’s played that much already, sometimes that can lead to a little entitlement. He’s not that, so that’s good.”
Despite his accomplishments last season in Provo, Williams remains relatively unknown nationally.
“People around here know who I am now, but I still have to make a name for myself outside of Utah,” he said. “I feel like this year is going to be the breaking point for me to get out there and do my best to help the team.”
Certainly, Williams has made an impression on his teammates.
“Jamaal is a leader. He is the first guy out there every day, every practice. Jamaal’s out there by himself,” said senior running back Michael Alisa. “It’s funny, because the running backs used to be the last group to come out and take the field. It was kind of like our thing. But because of Jamaal, we take the field first now we started to follow his example.”
Alisa said Williams brings a lot to the Cougar offense, aside from running the football.
“Jamaal is a fiery guy. Sometimes he keeps to himself. Sometimes he’s amped and jumping on guys. He’s just a fun guy to be around. I like the way that he handles his game, the publicity, and I think he’s a good guy outside of the field.”
During the offseason, Williams enjoyed returning home and spending time with his friends and family.
“I relaxed and had fun,” he said. “I was grateful that they let me go home for a couple of weeks. That made a tremendous difference in how I’m coming into this season, because now I’ve been here for a while now. I can get back to business and don’t have to worry about anything back home, knowing that everybody’s good and okay. They support me from back there. They know why I’m here. They just love what I’m doing out here. I’m glad to be a positive role model to everybody back home.”
With game day rapidly approaching, Williams can’t wait. He loves the fact that school doesn’t start until next week. For now, he can focus completely on football.
“Hallelujah. That’s what I’m talking about. I wish every week was like that,” Williams said. “This is the best week of all time for me — to get ready for a whole week of football and no school is the dream.”
Last season, Williams’ family and friends came out to BYU road games in droves. And it appears the same will happen this year. His mother, Nicolle, has already managed to gather eight tickets for the Virginia game.
“I’ve got to get some more (tickets) from the players,” Williams said. “She always has a lot of people everywhere that want to see me play. I’m grateful for them to come out there and support me I love her for all the effort she’s put in to see me play and the whole team. She really loves BYU.”
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