Years ago, the Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton was a thorn in the Green Bay Packers’ side.
Now, the Packers are hoping a player inspired by Payton will be a thorn in the side of the Bears, among other NFL teams.
Fourth-round draft pick Jamaal Williams never saw Payton play in person. In fact, he was just a tike when the retired Hall of Fame running back died in 1999 at just 45 years old after a battle with a rare liver disease. But Williams had heard stories of Payton and Eric Dickerson of the same era and saw videos of them. As his college football career took turns and twists, he made part of the Payton routine his own.
“(Payton) ran hills in the offseason to do everything he could to make sure he was the most fit and able and ready-to-go football player on the field,” said Williams. “So he always kept running and running. And running hills is what you do to get your legs stronger and endurance up. And if you just keep doing it and doing it, it makes everything easier in football, so I pretty much just watched what Walter Payton has done and I really just try to imitate him and put it into my game.”
By the 2016 season – a comeback season of sorts for Williams – the BYU running back had established his identity. The Packers’ scouting staff, for one, had taken notice. They saw an aggressive, downhill runner and a tough kid – the type of three-down back they covet and one that could close out games in the winter chill at Lambeau Field.
“He’s built to last,” said Jon-Eric Sullivan, the Packers’ director of college scouting. “We’re excited about him. We got a good football player, a guy who complements what we already have here. Very excited to get him, absolutely.”
Addressing an area of need on their roster with the departure of Eddie Lacy and the release of James Starks, the Packers selected Williams on Saturday with the 134th pick. Williams is the Cougars’ all-time leading rusher with 3,901 yards, highlighted by a big senior season – 1,375 yards rushing (5.9 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns in just 10 games.
But the one season that might get the most attention for Williams is the one that was lost. In 2015, he could only watch his teammates on television and text them to show his support.
Though Williams had some injury issues at BYU, this absence was of another kind. After violating BYU’s strict honor code, he spent a season away from football and school. “I had a girl in my room,” were the words Williams used to describe his violation. Such a situation may seem minor to some but, at BYU, it was taken more seriously.
Said Williams of prospective NFL teams’ reactions for what the violation was for: “Most of them laughed with a surprised on their face. It really wasn’t a big deal to everybody else, the coaches. Once I told them, they pretty much just laughed and praised me in saying that I’m strong and great for sticking it out at BYU because I could have went somewhere else. But I stayed there because BYU was the first team that actually gave me an offer and wanted me for me. Loyalty is a big thing for me. I’m just grateful the Packers picked me. I can see that I’ll be loyal to them, too, for what they’ve done for me in giving me this opportunity.
“I was angry (initially with the situation at BYU) but, at the same time, you have to know that it’s your responsibility. You made the choice of going to the school and everything. It’s your responsibility for violating the honor code because they tell you the rules. If you don’t, then that’s your fault. So, I was mad but, at the same time, I just have to grow up and understand that my consequences and my choices are on me. I can’t do nothing about it except grow from it, learn from it, and make myself better.”
Williams spent the year away from school running drills, weightlifting, working his abs and doing just about everything he could to become a bigger, stronger and faster player. And under the baking sun of Scottsdale, Ariz., he ran those hills, just like Payton.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Williams sees himself as a throwback.
“I feel I’m an old-style-type of running back. I like to bruise, I like to pound into people a lot,” said the 6-foot, 215-pound Williams, who has drawn comparisons to the Bears’ Jordan Howard. “I feel like I’m a grinder, a workhorse and as the game keeps going – fourth quarter, third quarter – I’m just getting stronger and stronger and trying to wear the defenses down. So, that’s what I like to do and that’s how I like to play. But, at the same time, I feel like I have the ability to make big runs and go to the end zone at any time, too.”
With Lacy and Starks over the past few years, the Packers lacked big-run ability. But with Williams (runs of 70 and 62 at BYU) joining starter Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael on the roster, there is the potential to change that. Williams had a 286-yard, five-touchdown game against Toledo, part of a three-game stretch in which he rushed for 618 yards and nine touchdowns while popping runs of 56-plus yards in each game.
By Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s projection, Williams fits the mold of a three-down back. He only had 15 catches over the past two seasons but had 27 as a freshman in 2012. He fumbled just five times in 786 touches, which should play well on a team that stresses ball security and pass protection first at their running back position.
Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury – which he said included an ACL – during the 2014 season, but the Packers seem comfortable with his durability and how his health checks out. Instead, they focused on Williams’ video to tell the story.
“Just an aggressive, strong, strong lower body, can run through contact,” said Sullivan. “He’s got the ability to break tackles. He sees it well. He hasn’t had a ton of opportunities as a pass catcher but he’s caught the ball well. I just think he’s going to complement the guys that we have here. We’re really excited about Ty and Michael and the guys we have in the stable. The guy’s a good football player.”