BYU Football Spring Game

Jamaal Williams gets tripped up during the BYU spring football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, March 30, 2013. SARAH WEISER/Daily Herald

Jamaal Williams, as a sophomore, has already established himself as one of BYU's most important football players.

Not just for this particular team, but for the future.

Williams is seemingly always quick to point out he's "still only 18" and is more than happy to take a backseat on leadership even though his statistics might command otherwise. As likely as he is to get the ball handed to him from quarterback Taysom Hill this fall, Williams is just as likely to meet the non-LDS (typically black, he says) recruit that is inevitably curious to hear his take.

He's happy to carry that load, too, though Williams says he has no plans to join the LDS faith, and will "just walk away" from someone who pushes too hard.

But he is just as quick to point out he also appreciates the school's honor code, considers head coach Bronco Mendenhall a mentor and adds with his trademark smile: "I'm grateful to be here; I really am."

The Cougars have a bulkier, seasoned running back who admits he's amped up for the first game, Aug. 31 at Virginia.

Williams is the type that will sit outside at the practice fields, well before fall-camp sessions start, just to get his mind right. This is his time of year.

"Football's just what I like to do," said Williams, who is quickly becoming one of the team's most provocative and sought-after interviews.

How he got here, and his conviction as to who he is — and where he's going — may be best summed up by his views on equality.

Williams had 775 yards rushing (another 315 on receiving) as he became a virtually every-down running back. Mike Alisa went out with a broken arm around the midway point of last season, affording the freshman the opportunity that drew him to Provo.

BYU coaches have praised their own increased possibilities at running back, alongside Williams, even with Alisa continuing to be bothered by his surgically repaired arm (Alisa finally practiced in full Monday, though he's still in cautionary mode from athletic trainers).

Williams, however, hasn't let competition faze him, or expectations floor him. He noted that a completely new offensive coaching staff "made everyone equals" in the running backs group. And he was able to put himself in the mindset of a newcomer who had everything to prove.

That hasn't exactly been necessary.

Mendenhall has basically called him a lock, saying that Williams is "so good...where you don't notice him (at practice). You just expect it."

New running backs coach Mark Atuaia said BYU's tried to stress with Williams the importance of becoming a better blocker, though he appreciates Williams' instincts for reading defenses.

"Jamaal does a good job of reading blitzes," Atuaia said.

Williams isn't out of the woods yet. Many in the program believe a new offense and greater personal size and experience will lead to a big year. Yet there's a lot to prove, looking at how he finished 2012.

He ended it as a crucial part of BYU's offense, albeit a fairly inefficient one.

Williams had 49 carries over the last three games, but just 155 yards — about three yards per carry.

Some of that lack of productivity is also on the offensive line which was hammered in the latter stages of last season. BYU's issues with quarterback didn't help give Williams any advantages when he was given the ball.

"We've taken more steps forward than backward there," offensive coordinator Robert Anae said of the O-line, and he's repeatedly praised Hill's development as a sophomore quarterback coming off a knee injury.

Williams has taken a bunch of steps forward on the honor code, the school's socially conservative policies that he admits made him "a little upset about it, when they first told me about it" during his recruiting days.

But his mother, a former sprinter at UCLA, told him not to worry. "That's the way you should be living your life no matter what religion you are," Williams recalled.

Clearly, he's been hit up on campus about his faith.

"As long as they don't try to pressure me into it, I'm good," he said. "People basically know I'm not LDS," he said.

It's typical for BYU to introduce recruits to players already in the program who are facing similar cirumstances. Be it by position, or upbringing. Williams nearly went to Boise State, but vowed to go somewhere he could be "more than a random number." He felt a connection to the school.

He would encourage others to consider their best interests in school and on the field, even if a high schooler felt BYU wasn't the best place because of school policies or playing time. Williams is as straightforward as he'd like to be on third-and-2.

"Look at your options," he said. "Go where you think you can play. You don't have to go to Oregon or Alabama, or a school like that, to do your thing."

His decision, he said, included feeling like playing time could be had relatively fast as a Cougar. And he could live by the laws of the land.

"It's nothing special. You're not really missing have your whole life to be doing every other thing, like going out and partying," Williams said, shrugging off the discipline factor. "But right now, I'm really focused on getting my stuff together, and having my goals and everything. Dudes that want to have parties and do everything right now, what are they going to do when they're done? They're going to have nothing."

Williams has quickly become something valuable at BYU.

∫Pick it up: Mendenhall suggested Monday that recent practices have had hired referees lacking. The crews slowed the game's pace "way down," when the Cougars are preaching a "go fast" offense.

It has been a frustrating predicament.

Mendenhall said he heard former Oregon coach Chip Kelly had 17 officials fired because they weren't to his game-like satisfaction for how quickly the Ducks wanted to play.

Mendenhall was referring to Saturday's private scrimmage and Monday's 11-on-11 sessions.

∫Worth noting: Converted receiver Michael Davis intercepted starting quarterback Taysom Hill at Monday's practice. Not bad for a second practice on the job, as a freshman. ...Offensive coordinator Robert Anae told reporters that he'll call plays from the sideline. He'll likely have quarterbacks coach Jason Beck and Guy Holliday (receivers) in the press box. That means running backs coach Mark Atuaia and offensive line supervisor Garett Tujague will be on the field with Anae. ...Justin Sorensen has pulled ahead in the kicker competition, between 12-15 percentage points ahead of his two challengers. ...Cornerback Adam Hogan is out about a month after tearing a few parts of his quadriceps last week. ...BYU is expected to hold a final scrimmage Wednesday, but it's still unclear if media or other spectators will be allowed to attend.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!