When Brigham Young University (BYU) running back Jamaal Williams returned for his senior season, after a year away from the team for an undisclosed school violation, his teammates named him a team captain for the 2016 campaign. The decision to name Williams captain sent a message loud and clear about what type of leader he was and what he meant to the BYU football program. While the decision may have come as a surprise to some, sitting down to watch Williams, it doesn’t take long to figure out why.
In any discussion about running backs, terms like vision, burst, acceleration, agility and power will be thrown around with regularity. All are crucial to the evaluation of a running back. If you turn on the tape of BYU’s 2016 opener vs the Arizona Wildcats, Williams displays all of those traits.
It is early in the 3rd quarter and BYU has a 1st down just inside Arizona territory. The offense lines up in a 3×1 wing formation from their 12 personnel package and Arizona responds with 6 defenders in the box and two safeties less than 10 yards off the ball. Williams (#21) receives the ball on a zone play to his right and presses his primary read just inside the right tackle. This gets the Arizona defensive tackle and safety both flowing to the outside, giving Williams a cutback lane behind the center. He cuts upfield, gets skinny through the hole while accelerating until he is met by two Wildcat defenders. Those two defenders were not enough to bring Williams down though. Williams demonstrates excellent play strength by dropping his pads and driving his legs through contact and breaks free.
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He is not done, however, as the backside cornerback comes from across the field and squares him up for the tackle. Williams displays an excellent jump cut leaving the Wildcat defender on the ground and accelerates downfield defeating the pursuit angles of the entire Arizona defense before being pushed out of bounds after a 40-yard gain.
Despite this, it would be unfair to Williams to simply show his highlight reel clips because he brings so much more to the table as an NFL prospect. After watching several of his games, the trait that stands out to me the most is Williams’ competitiveness. Competitiveness is a trait that can be hard to evaluate in highlight reels. It is easy to be at the top of your game when everything is going your way. Williams stood out to me the most when things weren’t going his or his team’s way.
The next two plays I want to highlight are from BYU’s game versus the Mississippi State Bulldogs. In this game, it is important to note that Williams has a chance to break the all-time BYU rushing record, which he ultimately did, but not without the Bulldogs making him work for it. Through three quarters, Williams had been limited to only 56 yards on 21 carries. By early in the fourth quarter, he needed less than 20 yards to break the record but was being swallowed whole every time he touched the ball. Although Williams probably wasn’t thinking about the record much during the game, the entire BYU offense was also being enveloped by the Bulldog defense and had only managed seven points through three quarters. BYU still only trailed by seven points but the frustration in this situation is imaginable. Being the playmaker that he is, Williams probably just wants to get the ball in his hands, burst to the outside, beat the defense to the edge, get in the endzone to tie the game and set the record. Instead though, he had to channel that frustration, keep his composure, remain mentally tough for his teammates and execute his assignment. And that is exactly what he did.
This play came early in the 4th quarter, BYU had the ball in the redzone for ten consecutive plays. The Bulldog defense was stifling, making a great goal-line stand but then gave up a penalty and a fresh set of downs. Three plays later, Williams gets in the endzone for a touchdown on a crucial third down catch, but the offense was flagged for holding, negating the play. The frustration builds. It is now 3rd and goal from the 15-yard line. BYU lines up in the shotgun 3×1 formation out of its 11 personnel package. Quarterback Taysom Hill (#7) calls for the snap and the Bulldogs rush four with a timed blitz coming off the edge. The BYU offensive line slide protects to their left, leaving the blitzer free off the edge.
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Williams steps up, identifies the pressure, moves across Hill’s face and gets to the blitzer just in time. He attempts a cut block and actually takes a bad angle on the block but got just enough of the blitzer to allow Hill to make a tight window throw for the crucial game tying touchdown.
This play will not show up on any of Williams’ highlight reels like the one above, he simply executed his assignment. When you evaluate the context around the play, however, it becomes so much more than just an executed assignment. Williams stood in the face of adversity and did his job. He demonstrated his mental toughness and discipline in a crucial situation.
The last play comes later in the same game. BYU is down seven points in overtime with a first down on the Bulldog’s 19-yard line. The Cougars have their 21 personnel package out on the field in a two back offset-I, slot formation and the Bulldogs respond with an eight man box and one deep safety. At the snap, the Bulldogs rush four and the Cougars give them a quick play action look. After stepping up with the play action, Williams is responsible for the edge rusher who was left unblocked by the offensive line. This time, Williams executes the cut block perfectly, driving his inside shoulder through the hip of the rusher, which brings him to the ground.
The coverage in the Bulldog secondary causes Hill to hold on the ball, which gives the edge rusher time to get back on his feet and get to Hill. Williams, again did his job on the play. He took out the edge rusher and gave Hill plenty of time to deliver the ball to his target. Many players, even great ones, would stop there. They would turn and watch the result of the play from the ground. The play wasn’t over for Williams though.
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When the rusher gets back to his feet, he gets to Hill and causes a fumble that would have ended the game if the Bulldogs had recovered. Luckily for BYU, however, tight end Tanner Balderee (#89) is right there to scoop up the ball and run. Williams, who was already getting back on his feet before the ball even popped loose, gets up and runs full speed to get out in front of Balderee and make a block which added a few extra yards to the tight end’s run. The Cougars later scored to tie the game and eventually won in double overtime. Again, nothing fancy on this play, it won’t show up on any highlight reels. But Balderee and the rest of Williams’ teammates won’t forget it. This play is just another example of Williams showing how badly he wants to win.
As I mentioned above, Williams displays all of the baseline traits required for a running back to get to the National Football League. Once in the league, however, success can only come with opportunity. Opportunity only comes when you have gained the trust of your coaches and teammates. The last two plays highlighted above are great examples of some of the little things that make Williams a special player and will get him those opportunities at the next level. At the very least they show why, after missing an entire season for a school violation, his teammates did not hesitate to make him their leader.