The junior had 71 receptions last season, the most among FBS running backs and the most ever for a WSU running back.
James Williams knows he will never get the same number of rushing attempts as Stanford’s Bryce Love or Washington’s Myles Gaskin.
That’s just a fact when you are a running back in Washington State’s pass-happy offensive system. But that is fine with Williams, a 6-foot, 205-pound junior who is the Cougars’ top returning running back. He doesn’t have to be handed the ball to make an impact.
Williams had a team-high 92 rushing attempts last season for 395 yards, and he also had a team-high 71 receptions, the most by any running back in the FBS and the most-ever for a Cougars running back.
“I didn’t think it would be that much, but I knew what I was getting into when I committed here, because I know coach (Mike) Leach loves throwing the ball and I know he wants all of his running backs catching passes out of the backfield,” Williams said. “The quarterbacks know we are a safety net when they get into trouble. (Passing to the running backs) got started the year before I got here when Jamal (Morrow) caught 61.”
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Williams knows there are going to be games where he gets only a few carries.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating when you don’t touch the ball as many times as you want, but at the same time, whatever they are doing is best for the team,” he said. “So I don’t want to be selfish in that aspect.”
Last season, Williams competed for playing time with then-seniors Morrow (who led the team in rushing last season with 522 yards) and Gerard Wicks. Williams said the big difference now is that he is a veteran of the unit, which includes senior Keith Harrington and touted true freshman Max Borghi.
“Me and Keith, we are taking the role that Jamal and Gerard had last year,” Williams said earlier this month. “We’re helping the younger guys and making sure they’re doing everything right, and maintaining that chemistry that we had with Gerard and Jamal. We want to make sure that we are focused on being the best position on the field.”
Williams said his goal this season is to get 1,000 combined yards rushing and receiving. As a freshman, he had 926 (584 rushing and 342 receiving) and he had 877 last year (395 rushing and 482 receiving).
“People think that’s hard, but it’s really not,” said Williams, whose nickname is Boobie. “Rushing? It might be a challenge, but with receiving I feel I can definitely do that.”
But what does he like best, getting handoffs or catching the ball? That one is a tough call.
“I always love running and making a play look pretty, but I like catching out of the backfield too because it gives me a lot of space to make a (potential tackler) miss,” he said. “Usually, when I get the ball (0n a pass), they are 5 to 10 yards away from me so I got a lot of room to work.”
Williams, who redshirted his first year after starring at Burbank (Calif.) High School, said it is “crazy” how fast time has flown for him at Washington State.
“I literally feel like I just walked into my first fall camp, nervous and worried about how I was going to do,” he said. “And now I am starting and I am a vet. It just flew.”
Williams said he isn’t listening to any of the predictions that say the Cougars could take a downward turn after losing so many key pieces from the team that went 9-4 last year.
“They say that every year,” he said. “We don’t worry about all that noise, and we’re going to shock the world. We have a good team. I think we are going to be fine.”
As for himself, he said he wants to improve everything he does, which must be a scary thought to opponents.
“There is always room for improvement,” he said. “My running, catching, route running. I want to improve my balance. Last year, I left a lot of points on the field. I want to get smarter in the game, read defenses a little better and just improve my game in those areas.”