PROVO — BYU running backs Jamaal Williams and Squally Canada were working out in the sweltering heat over the summer when Williams didn’t think he could go on.
“We were out here doing 100-yard lunges,” Canada recalled. “We had to do it with a sandbag. Jamaal was just dead. He was dying in the first 50 yards. I’m trying to push through it. The last 50 yards, he was really struggling.”
That’s when Canada decided to motivate his friend.
“I screamed at him, ‘Remember, think about that record! You want that record!’ He pushed himself to go harder,” Canada said. “When he finally made it he said, ‘I’m going to get that record, for sure.’ That record is definitely on his mind. I think he’ll get it.”
That record is the school’s all-time rushing mark of 3,455 yards, held by current BYU graduate assistant Harvey Unga. Williams, who needs 930 rushing yards to eclipse Unga, will be back in the lineup for the first time in two years when the Cougars open the season Saturday (8:30 p.m., MDT, FS1) against Arizona.
That record is one of the reasons why Williams — who was named a team captain Monday — returned to Provo for his senior year after abruptly leaving school last August for personal reasons.
“It’s always in the back of my head. I’ve always been working towards it. I do want the record,” Williams said. “At the same time, I want our team to do great, too. Honestly, it comes by me working hard. We have a whole bunch of great players on this team. I’m working hard, getting ready for them, and I won’t let them down this year.”
Running backs coach Reno Mahe knows if Williams is to break the school rushing record, it will require a team effort.
“A lot of things have to go into place to break that record,” he said. “Our linemen, tight ends and receivers have to block. If everyone does their part, he’ll be in position to achieve that goal. He needs to stay healthy. He should have a great year.”
Since arriving on campus at the age of 17, Williams has experienced his share of adversity. But as a 21-year-old senior, he is scheduled to graduate in December. While Williams has matured, he’s still fun-loving. Williams enjoys teasing teammates, coaches and media members and, on occasion, doing some impromptu dancing.
"Jamaal is a fun guy,” said coach Kalani Sitake, “and a great leader as well.”
The last time Williams played in a game, it was nearly two years ago — Nov. 1, 2014 — in a win at Middle Tennessee State. Williams caught a pass near the sideline for a 28-yard gain and was immediately leveled by a Blue Raider defender late in the third quarter. On the play, Williams suffered a serious knee injury.
From all accounts, Williams is healthy and better than ever.
“He’s grown into his body. I think he’s faster and stronger,” said Williams’ mother, Nicolle. “Mentally, he understands the game a little bit more. He definitely has matured a lot.”
When Williams left BYU a year ago, many wondered if he’d return. But Nicolle said she always knew her son would be back in Provo.
“It wasn’t ever a question that he wouldn’t come back. That never came into our minds,” she said. “He’s the type of person that if he starts something, he’s going to finish it. He wanted to graduate and he wanted to be the all-time leading running back at BYU. I don’t think it ever crossed his mind not to come back.”
Nicolle said her son took a lot of online classes and trained during his time away. “He did everything as if he were still in Provo. He just wasn’t in Provo. It was a growing period for him.”
Williams’ teammates are glad he has returned.
“Having Jamaal back is awesome. He’s one of our senior leaders,” said running back Trey Dye. “Everybody respects him for the experience that he has and the skill he brings to the game. Everybody expects Jamaal to be Jamaal.”
Heading into his final season, Jamaal’s journey at BYU has helped him become the person he is today, Nicolle said.
“It’s been a good college experience. It’s about having different life experiences to help you negotiate your real-life experiences once you’re out on your own. All the ups and downs and obstacles he’s experienced has made him a better person. His experience at BYU is something he will always remember. I knew that he was going to finish at BYU. It was just a matter of time. Can’t wait for the first game.”