Full disclosure: I am, and have been since I was two years old, a Washington Huskies fan. That wouldn’t matter except that I’ve found that many Cougs (or at least, Cougs that reside online) really don’t like it if a Husky so much as watches a Washington State game, much less if they watch many and proceed to have opinions on what they’ve seen. If you’re one of those people, that’s fine, I guess, but please don’t stalk me online and compose illegible hate-mail. That’s creepy. And an embarrassment to human existence. Now that that’s been said, let’s get down to why James Williams will be flipping awesome in 2017:

First off, let’s dismantle an outdated understanding of Washington State’s offense.

People — mainly crotchety, middle-aged Washington fans, fans of the California schools who forget there are things outside of the Golden Coast, and Eastern fans enjoying a well-deserved gloat about bringing WSU their annual FCS loss (I kid, I kid) — like to uphold the mythology that being a running back in Mike Leach’s system means you’re an afterthought. Whenever a running back commits to WSU, the general reaction from snarky Pac-12 fans is something along the lines of “lol why would a hb even go they’re lolol #airraid #areweinIdaho? #imdumb,” typos included.

Yes, we all know the Cougs throw the ball around. A lot.

But you know what else? Mike Leach adapts. (Hell, that’s how he got to this Air Raid thing to begin with.) First, he toyed around with the defense. Then he brought in the occasional fun ground shenanigans, and here we are today. The last two years especially, running backs in Leach’s system have become, if not stars, rather significant. Sure, Wazzu isn’t playing like they’re Stanford or Wisconsin or anything but the characterization of their Air Raid as essentially RB-less is reserved now for those who haven’t been paying attention.

Still though, the Cougs are majorly pass-happy (duh), which sets up the run for an explosive guy like Williams to make defenses pay.

But why Williams specifically, when the Cougar backfield includes three more senior contributors? Well…

For one, we already saw him force his way onto the field in 2016 after redshirting the year before despite the presence of Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks, and Keith Harrington — the latter of whom changed positions to WR due to the amount of talent in the backfield. Not only did Williams just see the field, during the first few games and final stretch of the regular season he carried far more than an even share of 33.3% of Wazzu’s ground plays. For the final five games of WSU’s regular season, Williams averaged about 37.3% of the Cougs’ carries. That number goes up to 42.13% if you discount the Colorado loss, the only game during that stretch where he ran less than he would had Leach split the rushing game evenly between their three regularly contributing backs.

So we already know the WSU staff — ya know, those guys who know players best — agree that he’s pretty darn good. If the way he played warranted stealing carries from other Coug running backs as just a redshirt freshman, his sophomore year will in all likelihood see him featured even more given the marginal increase in returns that is greatest in the first year or two of a collegiate player’s development.

What makes Williams so fun to watch (and fantastic to have on your team, if you’re a Wazzu fan)?

To me, he does pretty much everything his type of back should do minus a bunch of annoying habits his type of backs often have; he won’t power through guys but at 5’11” and 195 lbs he has the leverage and fight to push out some decent yards after contact. His spin move is the sort of thing kids imitate when pretending their backyard game is the Super Bowl. More definitively, though, he’s explosive off his side-steps but doesn’t do that dumb tap dance so many backs do in a hopeless attempt to make a big play. (Spoiler alert: that never works and you’re gonna lose yards and have a bajillion fans cursing you out at their TV.)

His decisiveness as a runner is RB porn and I for one love it so long as it’s not against my team.

That by itself makes him good, but it’s made all the better by how he utilizes his angles before and after cutting. Similar to a few thriving Pac-12 running backs, Williams manipulates space best with up-field cuts of just a few degrees, neither sacrificing downfield yardage for shiftiness nor making him easy to read if you’re a prospective tackler. Due to this, I’ve rarely seen an opponent get a clean tackle on him once he gets even a little open space.

His proficiency there brings us back to the running back in Mike Leach’s offense. Because you know what they still do in Mike Leach’s offense? Throw it.

A lot.

And that might be where Williams excels particularly well; if he’s dangerous in just a bit of space, getting more than “just a bit of space” by receiving out in the flat makes him scary for opposing defenses. I’ll be watching for him to catch passes out of the backfield this year and make other teams pay.

If 2016 was just his break-in year, 2017 could be when people outside of the Palouse know him by heart.

(But for real though, somebody read this and put together a compilation video of just his spin moves please and thank you.)


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Sup. I watched the Kingdome implode from atop Elliott Bay in 2000 and have been perpetually depressed about the Mariners since. Luckily, the Huskies provided plenty relief, proving how horrific Seattle baseball is that a college football team who went 0-12 in that time span was a preferable option. My first Washington football game involved two year-old me’s eardrums getting wrecked by crowd noise every touchdown. In other words, my ears hurt once in the third quarter. (Just kidding – this was the 90s, when Washington football pwn’d n00bs.) Then the 2000s happened, spawning two tragedies: Oregon football relevance and The Simple Life. Now do me a favor and tweet @derekwaterss so he’ll let me on Drunk History to tell the story of UW’s Ivy League-upendin’, Nazi-beatin’ 1936 crew team.
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Sup. I watched the Kingdome implode from atop Elliott Bay in 2000 and have been perpetually depressed about the Mariners since. Luckily, the Huskies provided plenty relief, proving how horrific Seattle baseball is that a college football team who went 0-12 in that time span was a preferable option. My first Washington football game involved two year-old me’s eardrums getting wrecked by crowd noise every touchdown. In other words, my ears hurt once in the third quarter. (Just kidding – this was the 90s, when Washington football pwn’d n00bs.) Then the 2000s happened, spawning two tragedies: Oregon football relevance and The Simple Life. Now do me a favor and tweet @derekwaterss so he’ll let me on Drunk History to tell the story of UW’s Ivy League-upendin’, Nazi-beatin’ 1936 crew team.
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