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Utah football: Williams now on a mission to tackle

Two concerns about returned-missionary football players are that they sometimes take as long as a year to get back into shape and that they often lose their aggressiveness.

However, those don't seem to be a problem for University of Utah linebacker J.J. Williams.

Williams returned from a Mormon mission to the West Indies six months ago and has picked right back up from his freshman season in 2006, when he was the starter for the second half of the season.

Although he's not listed as a starter on the depth chart, he's working his way into shape and will play a lot for the Utes this fall, according to his coaches.

"I feel like I'm finally getting my legs back," he said. "It's just fun to be out there with the guys."

Some returned missionaries lose their killer instinct while preaching religion for two years and not playing sports, but that wasn't the case for Williams.

"I think the mission helped that," he says. "Two years without hitting anybody, I was hungry when I first got back. I can't wait until the season starts."

Coach Kyle Whittingham said Williams is "doing very well" and has made a lot of strides since being limited in spring ball due to a hamstring injury.

Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who doubles as the linebackers coach, is excited about the progress Williams is making since returning home.

"One thing I know about him, he's been in tough games and I can always rely on him mentally," said Sitake. "It's just the physical aspect, making sure his body is ready. He'll get there. "

Williams came to Utah as a walk-on in 2005 because of a connection between his father, Doug, and Whittingham, who were teammates at BYU. They kept in touch over the years and when J.J. didn't get much attention out of Grandview High School in Colorado, Whittingham urged him to come to Utah.

Born and raised in Sacramento, Williams moved with his family to the Denver area for his final two years of high school.

His given name is Jaysen, but in first or second grade, his mother started calling him J.J., even though his middle name starts with a V, and the moniker has stuck.

Williams sat out as a redshirt and didn't start until midway through his freshman season in 2006, getting the chance when two other linebackers were injured. But once he got his chance, he never relinquished the starting spot.

He ended up starting seven games and finished fifth on the team with 55 tackles, had 4.5 tackles for loss and also returned an interception 22 yards for a touchdown against UNLV in 2006.

You might expect him to get his starting spot back, except that the linebacker position may be the deepest on the entire Ute team with three starters back from last year — Stevenson Sylvester, Mike Wright and Kepa Gaison — along with several key backups, including Chaz Walker, Mo Neal and Matt Martinez.

Sitake says Williams will play a lot this year, regardless.

"You'll remember his freshman year he didn't start until midyear," he said. "Depending on him and how fast he progresses, I feel comfortable with being able to use him a lot. We'll see if he's ready to be a starter or just come in and fill in wherever we need him in spots."

Sitake says Williams can play any of the three linebacker positions and will likely play all three.

"Depending on the situation, he'll be out there," Sitake said. "You'll see him on the field. I've seen so many strides in one week. In three weeks, who knows what will happen."


E-mail: sor@desnews.com