PROVO — He’s the youngest player on a BYU squad that doesn’t usually play rookies.
The job may have come to him by injury when Michael Alisa broke his arm, but it’s all about how you shoot the arrow, not how you came to hold the quiver.
Jamaal Williams has established himself as a bright spot in an offense that’s been riddled by injuries and seemingly redefines itself every week depending on the cast.
“I love that dude. He’s a football player,” said Cougar quarterback Riley Nelson. “He’s going to be an exciting player for years to come.”
Williams has a little Jamaal Willis in him, minus that long gait. He changes direction a little like Reno Mahe with quick feet and balance, and displays an eye for a block and opening like Curtis Brown. He’s nothing like Luke Staley; he does not possess the power of Harvey Unga, but Williams has a changeup move, a quick spurt and great feel for the game.
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman is placing a couple of pieces at a time on Williams’ plate. This past week it was a quick pitch and throwing to Williams out of the backfield.
Slowly, Williams has taken over as BYU’s leading rusher, wrestling that title away from quarterbacks Taysom Hill and Riley Nelson. He’s gained 409 net yards this season and scored five touchdowns. He averages 5.2 yards per carry.
At the end of his 21-yard run that set up BYU’s first touchdown at Notre Dame last Saturday, the proud Fighting Irish defense was more than a little stunned if not taken aback. It kind of unnerved Brian Kelly’s defense that Williams gained yards and BYU scored two touchdowns.
On BYU’s first TD drive play, Williams had just finished ripping off runs of six and 13 and caught a pass for four yards. Then, he went for a big chunk.
On Williams’ big run, BYU’s longest of the game, he took a quick pitch, ran around the right side of the line and raced to Notre Dame’s 13-yard line, where he stepped out of bounds. At that moment, Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley came over to the sidelines late and shoved Williams to the ground. The ensuing personal foul penalty gave the Cougars a first down at the 6. Two plays later, Nelson found Cody Hoffman alone for an easy touchdown.
Farley’s reaction told a big story in that first half in Notre Dame Stadium. You felt it in the stands, in the press box and certainly on the field.
Said Nelson, “Boy-oh-boy. He was just a man. I am so proud of the way he’s playing and battling and staying healthy and helping this team.”
In this game, BYU deployed yet another type of game plan, one that’s had to evolve. Against Notre Dame, BYU had fewer plays to work with to manage the plan. But it almost worked.
Instead of having Riley throw 51 times and running 84 plays like at Oregon State, Doman had 61 plays with Nelson throwing 36 passes. Against OSU, BYU got in 18 third-down situations, but managed just 13 at Notre Dame. The conversion percent in both games remained around 50 percent.
“I liked our first and second downs. I liked the play action, the added screens and hurry-up tempo offense,” Doman said. “We’ve got to find a few more run plays in the hurry-up offense. I was pleased with the plan, maybe it was the best plan we’ve had this season.”
Williams ended up gaining 64 yards on 14 carries, an average of 4.6 yards per attempt. That may not seem like a ton of real estate. But the big, mean, Manti Te’o-led Notre Dame ranked No. 4 in the nation in rushing defense before that game.
Bottom line is Williams has become a cog in BYU’s offense. Yes, it comes late in the season, but better late than never.
“He’s going to be a great player,” Doman said. “He’s going to be outstanding. It doesn’t matter if we play Notre Dame or Oregon State or whomever, he’s as good as a football player as we’ll find in the country and fortunately he’s on our team.
“Gradually, we’re going to develop him but you can see when you put him with the best athletes in the country, he’s as good as them.”
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org