PROVO — There are not a lot of college football coaches that would allow their top running back to run track on the side.
But on a rainy, stormy Saturday afternoon at the BYU track, Jamaal Williams, who rushed for 1,233 yards and seven touchdowns last season, competed for the Cougars in the 4x100 at the Robison Invitational before a sparse crowd and little fanfare.
When it comes to letting his players try other sports, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall doesn’t take the decision lightly.
It required Mendenhall placing trust in the track coaches, Williams achieving academic success, and “me bugging him” (as Williams explained), to make it happen.
Williams, who will be a junior on the football team this fall, ran track in high school and has always longed to compete on the collegiate level.
Now he is.
“I wanted to do it since before I even came here,” Williams said. “I wanted to keep on running if I could. But Coach Mendenhall didn’t really like track because Adam Hine did it and he hurt himself.”
That’s right — two years ago, Hine, a running back/kick return specialist, suffered an injury as a high jumper.
Because of that, “I think (Mendenhall) just put a big ‘X’ on football players running track again,” Williams said. “I’m glad that he gave me an opportunity to do it, especially when it comes to grades, too."
More than anything, Williams views being a member of the track team as a reward for his hard work in the classroom.
“One thing about Coach Mendenhall is, he’ll let you do it, but have to have responsibility for other stuff, such as grades," Williams said. "If he didn’t care about grades, then a lot of us would be out here. It would be easy. This is like a reward for having good grades and working hard in the classroom. He really rewards you for doing things he tells you to do and staying at the expectations he wants you to be at, then he gives you the opportunity to do what you want to do.
"There are a couple of dudes (on the football team) who should be running track, and I’m trying to help them with it. I keep telling them if they get the grades right, ‘You can do whatever you want, and you’ll enjoy every minute of it.’ I feel more accomplished and grateful being out here just because I’m out here with good grades, not just being out here because I’m fast and talented.”
Of course, being fast and talented helps, too.
Two weeks ago, after the conclusion of spring football, Williams started working out with the track team.
Williams made his debut Friday, running the 100 meters — clocking in at 11.10. Saturday, in the 4-by-100, he handed off the baton to Tyler Sorensen during the second leg, and it didn’t exactly go as smoothly as he would have liked.
“(The baton) was slippery,” Williams said. “I’ve just got to put it there. In all of my years of running track, this was the first time I had a handoff in the rain. It just comes with practice and everything, getting familiar with it again. I feel like a freshman again, playing my first game. I did all right. I felt like I could have done a lot better. I don’t let it get to me. I’ll come back and be better next time.”
Helping pave the way for Williams to join the track team was track and field assistant coach Kyle Grossarth, who had worked with Williams the previous two years as an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the BYU athletic department.
“I have a relationship with Coach Mendenhall,” Grossarth said.
Before the track season started, Grossarth met with Mendenhall, asking how he could help his team, and which players could also benefit the track squad.
“Jamaal kind of fit the criteria he laid out,” Grossarth said. “We were fortunate enough to get Jamaal out here.”
“Having Kyle as a track coach now is a great bonus, too,” Williams said.
Both Grossarth and Williams say that running track has huge benefits that will show up on the football field this fall.
“This will help me, especially when I’ve got a little space to run in and I have an opportunity to take it all the way for a long run,” Williams said. “I know that if I do this right, it will be easier to get long runs than I had last year. I think I had two where I made it all the way. But if I keep running how I am and learning all of the techniques Kyle is showing me to get better, I'll have more than two. It could become a natural occurrence of taking it all the way. That’s one thing I like about track — it gets you better, speed-wise. When it’s time to score, when you have the opportunity, I can remember all the times I had chances to score, but I didn’t have the form to do it, especially my freshman year.”
Williams remembers a certain play from that season against Idaho on which he failed to score a touchdown.
“If I go right now and do the same play from the Idaho game, I’m pretty sure I would score,” he said.
“Anytime someone gets faster, it’s going to help you regardless of what you do,” Grossarth said. “I think there’s that aspect of helping him get faster. There’s lateral speed, there’s football speed, there’s track speed. But speed is speed, regardless if you’re on the track or on the football field. If you’re fast, you’re fast. And obviously the competitive aspect. Here’s another environment for him to be competitive in to be able to compete against other guys, and just being around a team and having that camaraderie with other people on campus is good as well.”
And, of course, there’s the family tradition of running track in Williams’ family. His mom, Nicolle, was a sprinter at UCLA. His sister, Jaela, recently ran a 13.97 in the 100-meter hurdles and is on the nation’s sixth-ranked 4x100 relay team in California.
Nicolle had some advice for Jamaal this weekend before his BYU track debut.
“My mom said, ‘Get your knees up, don’t be lazy, breathe, and if you need motivation to run faster, just know that J-Lo’s coming for you, which is my sister. She pretty much just threatened me with my sister.”
Yes, sibling rivalry is alive and well in this family.
“She’s the top track star, but she still can’t beat her big brother,” Jamaal said, grinning. “I don’t care how old we get, I’ll always beat her. She raced me at the bowl game in San Francisco and in the 40 and still hasn’t beat me. She might have beaten all the girls in the world, but she’s not beating me.”
Williams plans to continue running the 4x100, and he wants to run the 200 meters as well.
Grossarth has enjoyed working with Williams.
“He’s been great. He’s fit right in with everybody,” he said. “He’s obviously got a great personality and he’s easy to make friends with, so the kids love him. We’ve had a great time.”
Williams said the biggest difference between track and football is “more technique. In football, you just run and make the time. Here, you have to make time and have form. When I first came out here, I couldn’t run a 100 without getting tired because you had to do extra stuff, like get your knees up and have form. It’s only been two weeks and I’m proud of myself, how I’ve been practicing and getting ready. I can’t wait for Thursday.”
Thursday is when he’ll compete in the BYU Cougar Invitational. Williams and his new teammates will be hoping for better weather and, as always, better results.
But, naturally, football is never far from Williams’ mind. He started well in his first 100-meter run Friday. “But toward the end,” he said, “I started to go back to football tendencies.”
On a soggy Saturday, Williams was pleased with how he did, but recognized there’s a lot to improve on.
What would Mendenhall think of it all?
“I’ll text him,” Williams said, “to tell him how I did.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company