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Biding time: James Williams waiting for his chance to run ball for Cougars

Freshman running back James Williams runs the ball during WSU practice in Lewiston on Thursday. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Freshman running back James Williams runs the ball during WSU practice in Lewiston on Thursday. (Tyler Tjomsland)

LEWISTON – When Washington State running backs coach Jim Mastro says of running back James Williams, “In 26 years of coaching, I don’t think I’ve had a more freakish athlete than he is,” it’s important to consider the company the freshman keeps.

Mastro, the co-maestro of the Pistol offense with Chris Ault at Nevada, coached a rushing attack in Reno that ranked among the top-three nationally in three consecutive seasons, and his running backs produced five 1,000-yard campaigns over his last four years.

At UCLA, Mastro coached F-back Anthony Barr, who now plays linebacker in the NFL for the Minnesota Vikings, who made the former Bruin the No. 9 pick in the 2014 NFL draft.

And Mastro’s statement includes WSU running backs Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow, sophomores that each played extensively last season and have drawn constant praise from the coaches, as has redshirt freshman Keith Harrington, a former receiver who is the quickest of the bunch.

But for the cocktail of speed and power that Mastro desires in a running back, he says he’s never found a better match than the 5-foot-11, 185-pound back from Burbank, California. When asked about the freshman, the Cougars coaches do err toward the superlative.

“Unbelievable athlete, freakish athlete,” Mastro said. “Fast, strong, he’s what we thought he was. He’s special. He’s really good.”

“He’s great at making people miss, he’s naturally powerful, he’s real fast and plays with a low center of gravity,” added head coach Mike Leach.

It will be awhile before there will be much to evaluate Williams on other than the confidence expressed by his coaches. The three aforementioned running backs have received all of the reps when the team does its live 11-on-11 sessions at the end of practices and Williams has been mostly limited to drill work.

But that he can even do that is a boon for the Cougars. Williams told WSU’s coaches that he would play for them in May of 2014. He didn’t mind that WSU had two redshirt freshman running backs that figured to carve out large roles as well as third highly-regarded back, Squally Canada, who transferred shortly before Harrington was moved from receiver.

But he acknowledged his commitment to WSU came in no small part because the coaches assured him that if he accepted their scholarship offer then the Cougars would not recruit any other running backs.

“I’m not going to turn that down,” Williams said after Thursday’s practice.

But on the opening kickoff of the second game of his senior season, Williams collided with a teammate and felt something rip in his knee.

A subsequent MRI exam revealed tears of the medial collateral ligament (MCL) and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), injuries that would put his football career on hold, or worse.

“After he got hurt, I think he thought that we were going to bail on him and we weren’t going to do that,” Mastro said.

With assurances from the WSU coaches that his scholarship was safe, Williams got to work. Three days of physical therapy every week and two days of weightlifting to build the strength in his knee.

After surgery, doctors told him that he was three months ahead of schedule in his recovery. The upshot was that he could enroll at WSU on time and be ready to go for the Cougars’ preseason camp.

“I feel like that whole year refreshed me. I wasn’t taking a beating and it gave me time, my knee, to heal,” Williams said. “I’ve been cutting hard on it and everything’s good. I feel like I’m back to my old self.”

Still, most of Williams’ time is spent learning plays, watching the examples set by his older teammates and biding his time for when the coaches think he’ll be ready to compete with them.

The coaches seem pretty sure it will be worth the wait.

Notes

Leach said after Thursday’s practice that he does not know when he will name a starting quarterback for WSU’s Sept. 5 season-opener against Portland State. Luke Falk has received the majority of the first-team reps in practice. … Destiny Vaeao was limited during Thursday’s practice, so Hercules Mata’afa played at defensive end with the first team. … Kicker Erik Powell has been booting the ball well of late, making kicks from 40-plus yards with plenty of room to spare during practice on Wednesday and Thursday.

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