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Record-setting Williams set for final game in BYU uniform then will look for shot in NFL

SAN DIEGO — Senior running back Jamaal Williams arrived at BYU more than four years ago at the age of 17. Now that his collegiate career is coming to a close, he is leaving quite a legacy.

Williams is the Cougars’ all-time leading rusher (3,691 yards), he holds the single-game rushing record (286 yards) and tied the single-game rushing touchdown record (5).

When BYU faces Wyoming Wednesday (7 p.m., MST, ESPN) in the Poinsettia Bowl, it will mark his final game as a Cougar.

“I’m not really emotional about it and all of that. I understand that it’s my last game. I’m grateful for it,” Williams said. “I’m grateful for all of my years here. Thinking about my last game makes me think about my first time at LaVell Edwards Stadium and how much I’ve grown and how much I’ve gained experience. It’s a great life I’ve been fortunate to live and I’ve still got more to go.”

For all that Williams has accomplished at BYU, he hasn’t performed as well as he would have liked in bowl games.

In his two previous bowl experiences — in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State as a freshman and the 2014 Fight Hunger Bowl against Washington as a sophomore — he gained 31 yards in each of those games.

Williams did, however, score a touchdown in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl in a 23-6 win over the Aztecs.

“That was a struggle. I might have gotten a touchdown but that whole game was a struggle for me,” Williams recalled. “Hopefully, this Poinsettia Bowl I do better and I can help my team more.”

Williams will be matching up against a Wyoming defense that ranks No. 88 nationally in rushing defense, giving up 202.7 yards per game.

This season, Williams has rushed for 1,165 yards and 11 touchdowns and averages 129.4 yards per game. Prior to this campaign, he hadn’t played a game in nearly two years. Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury in November, 2014, then abruptly withdrew from school prior to the 2015 season.

One of his reasons for returning to BYU was to break the all-time rushing record. That mission was accomplished at home during an overtime win against Mississippi State on Oct. 14.

Then Williams missed three of the final five games due to injuries.

“He’s healthy. He’s got the say on when he needs to come out and when he’s ready to go back in,” said offensive coordinator Ty Detmer. “We’ve left that up to him most of the year. We feel good about his decisions. He’ll be ready to go for his last game.”

Of course, Williams is hoping to continue his football career next year in the NFL and, fittingly for him, Wednesday’s game will be played at an NFL venue, Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers.

But he’s not putting any pressure on himself to impress NFL teams Wednesday.

“Nobody can put pressure on me except me. My biggest critic is me,” Williams said. “I’m just going to go out and play my game. From there, they like what they like. They don’t what they like. It’s cool. I know I can always improve on something.”

Williams is also scheduled to play in the Senior Bowl on Jan. 28 in Mobile, Alabama.

Detmer, who played in the NFL for 14 seasons, said Williams has what it takes to make it at the next level.

“Jamaal’s got a great opportunity ahead of him. He’s got a perfect combination. He does everything well,” Detmer said. “Talking to the (NFL) scouts when they come through, they’re really impressed with him. He’ll have a shot to play at the next level. He’s got everything you’re looking for in a back. He pass protects well and that’s a big part of it in the NFL. They want those guys to be able to pass protect. He’s done a great job with the total package.”

BYU graduate assistant Harvey Unga, who was the Cougars’ career rushing leader before Williams eclipsed him in October, said Williams’ running style reminds him of running back Matt Forte, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who used to play for the Chicago Bears and currently plays for the New York Jets.

“Like Matt Forte, Jamaal’s very fluid, he has a knack for slipping between the tackles. Running between the tackles is a hard thing,” Unga said. “Once they get between the tackles, they have this little burst from the initial line to the linebackers. He runs super hard. He’s a complete guy. You can throw the ball to him and know he’ll catch it. You can put him in the backfield on third down and know that he’ll pick up pressures if we have to pass the ball … When he’s in the game, it’s different. There’s a presence from him that the defense has to respect. It changes the dynamic of a defense and how they try to stop him as well as the entire offense.”

During his career, Williams has been adept at breaking tackles and picking up yards after contact. That’s attributed to both his strength and running style.

“You’ve got to be able to have a really good sense of balance and understand leverages, which he’s got," Unga said. "At the same time, his length strength and leg drive, to run through those tackles and keep his balance is tough. His skills and talent and balance stems from the strength in his lower body and upper body. From his freshman year until now, he’s totally different. He’s transformed so much. All of it carries over, from the weight room to refining his skills out on the field.”

Unga is proud of what Williams has done at BYU.

“To see the progress each and every year has been amazing,” Unga said. “It’s fun to see all of the hard work pay off.”

EMAIL: jeffc@deseretnews.com