PULLMAN – Teammates and coaches all seem to concur: Washington State running back James Williams sharpened his mental game this offseason, and there’s probably more to it than the natural progression and maturation made when an underclassman becomes an upperclassman.
“James for sure changed,” position mate Keith Harrington said. “I feel like for sure he’s more focused now. … He’s just focused. I can tell, it’s just all football.”
“I’ve seen a difference of him just really paying attention, asking smart questions and working on some little things that’ll really elevate him,” offered running backs coach Eric Mele.
Sure, Williams is one year older, one year wiser and therefore has a better understanding of the dedication he needs to ply to his craft. But there’s more to the story. The fourth-year Cougar running back, and anyone close to him, would point to a major life event that could also describe the sudden change in his mental framework.
Williams will carry more than a football as he enters his redshirt junior campaign. On May 5 in Boise, the running back got engaged to longtime girlfriend Rye Hewett, a special education teacher who grew up in nearby Juliaetta, Idaho, and played tennis at Lewis-Clark State College.
Friends and teammates of the WSU tailback had been in the loop months ahead of the proposal, but Williams was confident Hewett “had no clue” until the day of. He popped the question on a river bridge in downtown Boise, near the Boise State campus.
“It’s been great,” Williams said. “I feel like I set a trend because I had a couple of teammates like, ‘I’m trying to get engaged too.’ I guess they were trying to see what was going to happen; are the boys going to make fun of it?”
Williams agrees the engagement has improved his concentration – and it’s cut out some of the perceived distractions that can be familiar to a college football player.
“You don’t have to worry about other things, college stereotypes, all the girls ‘Oh, you’re a football player?’ I don’t care about none of that, I just want to be with one girl,” he said. “And especially because when I get done with games, I just want to go home and relax and have a good time watching movies or whatever we’re doing. I’m fine with that.
“It’s definitely kept me more focused and all that stuff, so it’s real good.”
Williams has been a highlight machine in his two seasons with the Cougars. In the Air Raid offense, tailbacks must be effective in both the run and pass game, and Williams struck that balance as well as anyone could in 2017, leading WSU in carries (92) and receptions (71).
According to Pro Football Focus, Williams forced 33 missed tackles on receptions last season and he was one of the most slippery tailbacks in the Pac-12, with an elusive rating of 92.5 – behind only Bryce Love (Stanford) and Zack Moss (Utah).
A razor-focused version of that same player could be a scary proposition for WSU’s opponents this fall.
“There used to be little things,” Harrington said. “James, he’s a wild one, he’s a funny dude but his mind just gets off track sometimes. But this year I’ve been seeing him real focused. First one to answer what play I got, checks, everything – he knows it by heart. So he’s been balling, he’s been locked in and he’s been focused and I can’t wait to see him ball out this year.”
While admitting that “James loves him some James,” Mele believes his running back’s engagement, and eventual marriage, will compel him to play for a greater purpose: his new family of three. Hewett also has a young daughter.
“That’s what you want, you want your players playing hard for a bigger reason than just themselves,” Mele said. “It’s good to see him kind of self-motivated, a little more intrinsic. We’re going to use that and if he makes a mistake and has a bad play and there’s bad body language, I’ll remind him: ‘Hey man you’ve got some people counting on you back at home.’ So it’ll be a good little tool for us.”
Seemingly just about everyone has benefited from Williams’ first touchdown of 2018.
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