PROVO — As they have rehabbed together the past several months since suffering devastating season-ending injuries last fall, BYU quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams have imagined what it will be like to run onto the field at Memorial Stadium for the 2015 season-opener at Nebraska on Sept. 5.
“I think about it all of the time,” Hill said Wednesday during annual media day festivities at the BYU Broadcasting Building. “I get emotional thinking about that. I love playing football and I love playing for BYU. Thinking about Nebraska week one gets me very excited.”
Heading into their senior seasons, Hill and Williams are healthy and expected to be at full strength when the Cougars kick off the campaign against the Cornhuskers in about 10 weeks.
“It’s been a long, long road back,” Williams said about coming off his injury. “I want to play hard and just be a dog, be hungry. I want people to see how much I love playing this game.”
Williams and Hill are two reasons why there’s a lot of optimism around the BYU football program, which is coming off three consecutive 8-5 seasons.
“A lot of things have to come together for any team to have a great season,” said coach Bronco Mendenhall. “If you look at possibly what key ingredients might be, our quarterback is back and is healthy and is a senior — that gives you a great chance. A senior running back is back and is healthy. You put those two pieces together and an offense that’s scored the most points (in school history) since 2001 basically intact. A defensive tradition with myself back involved to give us our best chance that way. Now you’re saying leadership and the key pieces at the right places against the best opponents. It has makings of a phenomenal team and a phenomenal season.”
At the time that Hill went down with a fractured leg in early October against Utah State, BYU was undefeated (4-0) and nationally ranked. “I think about those first four games that I was playing in last year all of the time, and remembering that feeling,” Hill said.
The goal is to duplicate that kind of performance through what will be a challenging gauntlet in the first month of the season with road games at Nebraska, UCLA and Michigan and a home game against Boise State.
“We’ve been there before. We know what it’s like to be 18th in the country and trending,” Hill said. “And we know what it’s like just to be another program (the Cougars lost four straight games after Hill’s season-ending injury). We certainly want to replicate that feeling of being a national contender.”
Hill, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, has been fully participating in drills for nearly six weeks after being limited during spring practices. “My ankle and my leg are responding really well,” he said.
The stylish Williams wore gold-colored sunglasses Wednesday as he fielded questions from the media. He is “100 percent” healthy, according to offensive coordinator Robert Anae. “He’s a very important part of the offensive scheme.”
What are Williams’ expectations?
“Just have a great season, a 10-plus win season and win a bowl game. We want to do the things we’ve dreamed of,” he said. “One of the individual goals I’ve wanted is the (all-time BYU rushing) record. I just need 900 more (yards). It’s in the back of my mind. I just want to win. I’d rather win than get the record.”
What does Hill want to accomplish in his final season as a Cougar?
“I’ve got another year to showcase what I can do as an athlete and as a quarterback and as a BYU football team, so let’s make the most of it, with the help of a great supporting cast,” he said. “This is the time of year when everyone’s most optimistic, right? At the end of the day, what I hope to see is us as a team reach our full potential. I don’t know what that looks like yet, I don’t know what that will be. But I think as we do that, we’ll be in a position to win every football game that we play. We have some tough road games. Things sometimes don’t go your way. But as we play well as a team, I think we’ll be in the fight of every game and have the potential to win every game. That’s my mentality.”
Hill and Williams have forged a strong bond as they have worked to return to the field.
“I was so gutted when I saw the play when (Williams) got injured,” Hill said. “We had some conversations about getting back. He’s handled it really well. We were able to go through it together.”
“It’s like having another me. It’s having the same competitive edge to get better,” Williams said of Hill. “It’s great to have competition, even if it is just rehabbing. To know that somebody has been through what you’re going through he’s somebody you want to play with.”
Williams, who has rushed for 2,526 career yards, has progressed quicker than many thought he would after tearing knee ligaments against Middle Tennessee in early November.
“I’m actually surprised how far along he is knowing what his injury was and knowing what he went through to get over it,” Hill said of Williams. “I’m very optimistic about him. That guy has worked extremely hard to get back. He’s hungry, he wants it, and he looks really good.”
Of course, BYU’s fortunes in 2015 hinge largely on keeping Hill and Williams healthy.
“I’m not counting on playing four or five games this year,” said Hill, who confirmed that he will continue to wear a brace on his left knee this season. “I’m going to do everything I can to stay healthy. We know it’s football and things can happen.”
Hill also missed most of his freshman season due to a knee injury. He is frequently asked if he will run less this season in order to avoid injury.
“As a senior, the conclusion I’ve come to is, this is how I play football. This is how, as an offense, we can be as good as we possibly can,” he said. “With that mindset, I’m still going to run the football. We are going to incorporate within the play calls to limit the opportunities to be hit. I’m still going to have just be me being me. I’m still going to run the ball. We’re going to limit it with our play-calling.”
Hill has high hopes for the offense.
“I think we can expect to raise the bar a little bit — do what we did last year and then a little bit more,” he said. “If we do a little bit more, we will be one of the best offenses in the country, based on what we did last year.”
Anae added that with plenty of offensive experience returning, “there are a lot of exciting things that are about to happen.”