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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Brigham Young Cougars running back Jamaal Williams (21) works out during Pro Day in Provo on Friday, March 24, 2017.
When the opportunities come, make sure you take them and make people believe. —BYU running back Jamaal Williams

The track record for former BYU running backs at the NFL level is not encouraging.

There has been only one 100-yard rushing game from a former BYU running back in NFL play — by Eric Lane in 1984 — and only one has any postseason carries: Bill Ring, mostly as a rookie with San Francisco in 1981.

While the BYU program has had players at other positions move on and excel at the pro level, running back isn't one of them. Jamaal Williams will be the next Cougar to try to build a breakout running back career in the NFL. He is being projected anywhere from a third to fifth-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft, which takes place April 27-29 in Philadelphia.

Twenty-one former Cougar running backs who reached the NFL, either via draft or free agency, have totaled a combined 548 carries for 2,017 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. That's just an average of 96.1 career rushing yards per player, and only three — Lane (405 rushing yards, four touchdowns), Ring (732, seven) and Vai Sikahema (217, zero) — eclipsed 200 career rushing yards.

Conversely, four NFL backs — including Eric Dickerson (2,105 yards in 1984), Adrian Peterson (2,097 in 2012), Jamal Lewis (2,066 in 2003) and Barry Sanders (2,053 in 1997) — rushed for more yards in a single season than those 21 former Cougar running backs combined for in the pros.

Williams, though, may be the one to finally break through for BYU.

"When the opportunities come, make sure you take them and make people believe," Williams said during BYU's Pro Day in March.

Why have they struggled?

There's been a litany of reasons for former BYU running backs not panning out at the NFL level. Eight of those former BYU running backs failed to record any statistics at the pro level and two who were selected in the NFL draft never officially logged a season in the league.

Luke Staley, a seventh-round pick by Detroit in 2002, couldn't stay healthy. Jamal Willis failed to break into the 49ers' rotation and lasted two seasons. Harvey Unga converted to fullback at the pro level and struggled to find consistency in Chicago.

In some cases, these former Cougars found ways to contribute on special teams. Sikahema was one of several former BYU running backs to find more success as a returner in the NFL. He made the Pro Bowl twice, in 1986 and 1987, for his returning skills.

Bill Ring, shown here with the San Francisco 49ers, leads all former BYU running backs with 732 career rushing yards in the NFL. | Lennox McLendon, Associated Press

Being selected in the NFL draft hasn't increased the odds of success for Cougar running backs in the pros, either. Ring, who has the most running yards from the group of 21, went undrafted. Scott Phillips, the 87th overall selection in the 1981 draft, was one of six running backs taken by Seattle in that year's draft but didn't even last a season, while Lane, another Seahawks pick that year, played six seasons.

Pete Van Valkenburg — who was selected No. 66 in the 1973 draft, the highest a BYU running back has ever been taken — only had two career carries in his lone NFL season.

Beyond that, the type of running back talent that BYU typically brings in just isn't up to NFL caliber. The program isn't a mecca for landing highly recruited running backs and has built some of its greatest successes at the college level from lower-star ball carriers.

Comparisons to other Utah schools

It's not like teams from the state of Utah have been devoid of putting solid running back talent in the NFL. The most successful has been the University of Utah.

Mike Anderson had two 1,000-yard seasons, including 1,487 yards and 15 touchdowns as a rookie in 2000, and finished with 4,067 career rushing yards and 37 touchdowns while toting the ball for Denver.

Atlanta Falcons Jamal Anderson (32) jumps to a touchdown over fallen Indianapolis Colts Jeff Herrod (54) Michael Barber (53) and Larry Chester (64) during the first half in Atlanta, Sunday, Dec. 6, 1998. | John Bazemore, Associated Press

Former Ute Jamal Anderson nearly eclipsed the combined career totals of BYU backs in the NFL with his 1998 season when he rushed for 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns in Atlanta. He finished with 5,336 career rushing yards and 34 scores.

Former Utah State running back MacArthur Lane enjoyed 11 seasons in the NFL and rushed for 4,656 yards and 30 scores after being selected in the first round (13th overall) of the 1968 NFL draft.

While he's never been a starting back in his career, former Aggie and current Indianapolis Colt Robert Turbin has rushed for 1,291 yards and eight touchdowns for four teams in six years. That eclipses the individual career numbers of every BYU back to play in the NFL.

And who can forget Corey Dillon, who played one season at Dixie College before transferring to Washington to finish his college career. Dillon went on to win a Super Bowl with New England and was a four-time Pro Bowler while rushing for 11,241 career yards and 82 touchdowns in a 10-year career.

Why Williams can succeed

Williams, though, has several traits that make him an expected mid-round draft selection and a strong candidate to end BYU's running back woes in the NFL.

Among them is Williams' decisiveness as a ball carrier. When he sees a lane open, Williams is quick to act and doesn't dance around. He also has the strength to go between the tackles and initiate contact with force.

That became particularly evident during his senior season at BYU, when a bulked-up Williams rushed for career-best totals of 1,375 yards and 12 touchdowns while becoming the school's all-time career rushing yards leader.

BYU Cougars running back Jamaal Williams (21) runs over Wyoming Cowboys cornerback Sidney Washington Jr. (22) during the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. BYU won 24-21. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. compared Williams to Chicago's Jordan Howard, who rushed for 1,313 yards for the Bears last year, second in the NFL only to fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys with 1,631 yards. Howard, a fifth-round selection in last year's NFL draft, also scored six touchdowns in 2016.

"(He) kind of runs like Jordan Howard: real tough inside runner, downhill, breaks tackles," Kiper told Eagles Nation.

Williams is not a burner. While he has the ability to churn out big gains — based largely on his decisiveness and strength — he was caught from behind several times throughout his BYU career, and that will be the case in the NFL as well. He ran a 4.59-second 40 at the NFL Combine and trimmed that to 4.53 at BYU's Pro Day, standard but now eye-popping numbers.

He'll need to prove himself as a reliable special teamer as well. In the Senior Bowl, Williams tackled the ball carrier on the opening kickoff, and at the NFL level, being a consistent performer on special teams makes a player even more valuable. It could lead to him earning opportunities in the early part of Williams' career.

The fun-loving Williams doesn't have any expectations for what round he will be drafted, as the 2017 NFL draft sits three weeks out.

"The important thing is to get on a team and show what you've got, make sure you make the team first of all and contribute," he said.


Former BYU RBs in the NFL


Here's a player-by-player look, in alphabetical order, at former BYU running backs who earned chances at the NFL level, either via being drafted or signing undrafted free-agent contracts. Information courtesy of NFL.com, Pro Football Reference and BYU.

Bruce Hansen (undrafted)

1 season (1987, New England Patriots)

Career: 16 carries, 44 yards, 0 TD

Top game: 13 carries, 43 yards, 0 TD

Lakei Heimuli (ninth round, No. 249 overall, 1987 NFL draft by Chicago Bears)

1 season (1987, Chicago Bears)

Career: 34 carries, 128 yards, 0 TD

Top game: 13 carries, 67 yards, 0 TD

Ronney Jenkins (undrafted, finished college career at Northern Arizona)

4 seasons (2000-02, San Diego Chargers; 2003, Oakland Raiders)

Career: 9 carries, 5 yards, 0 TD

Top game: 2 carries, 6 yards, 0 TD

Dustin Johnson, fullback (sixth round, No. 183 overall, 1998 NFL draft by New York Jets)

1 season (1998, Seattle Seahawks)

No career stats

Eric Lane (eighth round, No. 196 overall, 1981 NFL draft by Seattle Seahawks)

7 seasons (1981-87, Seattle Seahawks)

Career: 124 carries, 405 yards, 4 TDs

Top game: 14 carries, 113 yards, 1 TD

Top season: 1984, 80 carries, 299 yards, 4 TDs

Eagles running back Reno Mahe runs with the football against the New York Jets in preseason game, Thursday, 8/28/2003. | Yong Kim, Philadelphia Daily News

Reno Mahe (undrafted)

5 seasons (2003-07, Philadelphia Eagles)

Career: 47 carries, 196 yards, 0 TD

Top game: 7 carries, 42 yards, 0 TD

Nyle McFarlane (undrafted)

1 season (1960, Oakland Raiders)

Career: 4 carries, 52 yards, 0 TD

Robert Parker (undrafted)

1 season (1987, Kansas City Chiefs)

Career: 47 carries, 150 yards, 1 TD

Top game: 15 carries, 65 yards, 1 TD

Scott Phillips (fourth round, No. 87 overall, 1981 NFL draft by Seattle Seahawks)

No seasons

No career stats

Bill Ring (undrafted)

6 seasons (1981-86, San Francisco 49ers)

Career: 183 carries, 732 yards, 7 TD

Top game: 11 carries, 71 yards, 0 TD

Top season: 64 carries, 254 yards, 2 TD

Postseason carries: 23 carries, 78 yards, 1 TD

Allan Robinson (16th round, No. 216 overall, 1964 NFL draft by Detroit Lions)

No seasons

No career stats

Vai Sikahema of the St. Louis Cardinals runs with the ball during a game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on October 18, 1987 in San Francisco, California. The 49ers won 34-28. | George Rose, Getty Images

Vai Sikahema (10th round, No. 254 overall, 1986 NFL draft by St. Louis Cardinals)

8 seasons (1986-90, St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals; 1991, Green Bay Packers; 1992-93, Philadelphia Eagles)

Career: 59 carries, 217 yards, 0 TD

Top game: 8 carries, 42 yards, 0 TD

Top season: 38 carries, 145 yards, 0 TD

Luke Staley (seventh round, No. 214 overall, 2002 NFL draft by Detroit Lions)

1 season (2002, Detroit Lions)

No career stats

Fahu Tahi, FB (undrafted)

5 seasons (2006, Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings; 2007-10, Minnesota Vikings)

Career: 10 carries, 21 yards, 0 TD

Top game: 4 carries, 10 yards, 0 TD

Casey Tiumalu (undrafted, he was selected in the 14th round of the 1984 USFL draft by L.A. Express)

1 season (1987, Los Angeles Rams)

No career stats (either in NFL or USFL)

Manase Tonga, FB (undrafted)

3 seasons (2010-12, Oakland Raiders, only 2011 on active roster)

Career: 1 carry, 12 yards, 0 TD

Top game: 1 carry, 12 yards, 0 TD

Peter Tuipulotu (undrafted)

1 season (1992, San Diego Chargers)

No career stats

Harvey Unga (seventh round, 2010 NFL supplemental draft)

5 seasons (2010-14, Chicago Bears, only 2012 on active roster)

No career stats

Fui Vakapuna (seventh round, No. 215 overall, 2009 NFL draft by Cincinnati Bengals)

3 seasons (2009-11, Cincinnati Bengals, only 2009 on active roster)

No career stats

Pete Van Valkenburg (third round, No. 66 overall, 1973 NFL draft by New Orleans Saints)

2 seasons (1973, Buffalo Bills; 1974, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears)

Career: 2 carries, 20 yards, 0 TD

Top game: 1 carry, 12 yards, 0 TD

Jamal Willis (undrafted)

2 seasons (1995-96, San Francisco 49ers)

Career: 12 carries, 35 yards, 0 TD

Top game: 5 carries, 19 yards, 0 TD

Note: Todd Christensen played fullback at BYU but was drafted by Dallas as a tight end in the 1978 NFL draft. He had one carry for minus-6 yards in the pros but had a 10-year career as a tight end.