Packers see toughness in BYU's Jamaal Williams

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - Come August, when the Green Bay Packers are entering the heart of training camp, rookie running back Jamaal Williams will be two years removed from perhaps the darkest moment of his football career..

Brigham Young's Jamaal Williams runs for a first down against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on October 8, 2016 in East Lansing, Michigan.

It was on Aug. 6, 2015, that Williams, a 6-foot, 215-pound bruising tailback, withdrew from Brigham Young following violations of the school’s Honor Code: He was arrested on a charge of underage drinking before his junior year; he spent the night with a female student a few weeks before the 2015 season.

When the dust settled, Williams made the choice to leave and spend the year training in Arizona before returning to school in 2016.

“It’s your responsibility for breaking the Honor Code because they tell you the rules,” Williams said. “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 (actions) are on me. I can’t do nothing about it except grow from it, learn from it, and make myself better.”

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Flash forward to Saturday, to the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft, and Williams received a phone call that served as the final stiff arm to a set of off-field problems that, in comparison to situations surrounding running back Joe Mixon and cornerback Gareon Conley, seem fairly trivial.

His cell phone lit up with a Green Bay area code, and the Packers drafted Williams with the 134th overall selection, their second pick of the fourth round.

“I’ve never been so excited in my life,” Williams said, “and to have my family here to support me too, something that really keeps me going and ready to play. I’m just ready to contribute to the team and get some W’s.”

Though it took nearly four full rounds, the Packers finally strengthened their questionable crop of running backs after drafting four consecutive defensive players. The free-agent departure of Eddie Lacy coupled with the release of veteran James Starks had transformed the landscape of the position relative to this time last year.

And while the emergence of Ty Montgomery was something of a revelation in 2016, counting solely on a converted wideout and his erratic backup, Christine Michael, was always a risky proposition as training camp approached.

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“This kid will have to come in here and kind of see where he stacks up,” said Jon-Eric Sullivan, the director of college scouting. “I think he’s going to do really well for himself. I think he’ll be an asset to the group.

“He’s built to last. He’s durable and he’s a tough kid. He’s all football. I think up here in the elements, he’ll be a good get for us when it gets cold. We’re super-excited to have him. I think he’s going to be a good football player.”

Sullivan said the Honor Code violations didn’t color the team’s opinion of Williams as a person. They trusted the input from his former teammates, who all liked Williams. They appreciated the fact that, after his one-year hiatus, Williams was voted team captain for his senior season. They respected his decision to return to BYU and finish his career rather than transferring to another school for the sake of avoiding criticism.

Williams, who spoke to the Green Bay media via conference call Saturday, said the Packers’ reaction to his off-field problems reflected the opinion of many teams around the league.

“Most of them laughed,” Williams said. “It really wasn’t a big deal to everybody else, the coaches. Once I told them they pretty much were laughing and praised me in saying that I’m strong and praised me for sticking it out at BYU because I could have went to 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.”

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His final season reinforced everything teams liked about Williams from 2013, when he ran for 1,233 yards and seven touchdowns as a true sophomore. When he returned to the field in 2016, following his one-year absence, Williams ripped off 1,375 yards and 12 touchdowns with an average of 5.9 yards per carry. He eclipsed 160 yards five times throughout the year.

Inauspicious though his path may have been, Williams left BYU as the career leader in carries, rushing yards and 100-yard games. He finished third in school history in rushing touchdowns.

“The whole 2015 season I just watched my team, text them, make sure they know that I was there for them,” Williams said. “I was running drills, running hills, abs, weight lifting. Just doing everything I can to make sure I was in better shape and bigger, faster, stronger for my team once I came back for them, just to let them know I’m dedicated to this team and I’ll do anything for my teammates.”

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They got the message, and then the Packers got Williams.

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