It's hard to say a lot about a player that we haven't gotten to watch in a year and a half. While many selfish Arkansas fans would want to see another year of Jonathan Williams, he's ready to head to the NFL. It's almost regrettable that he didn't go to the NFL in 2015, but hindsight is 20/20. Williams is still high on many draft boards despite his 2015 injury.
With his backfield mate for two years Alex Collins getting all of the praise and adulation as a freshman, Williams quietly prepared for a sophomore campaign in 2013 that put him on the map as one of the best running backs in the SEC. Until the 2015 campaign where Collins had the opportunity to stand alone as the featured back, many thought that Williams was the better back, and he still might be. Williams had to sit out 2015 after a pre-season foot injury and surgery, but tells anyone that will listen that it just means he has one less season of wear and tear on his body.
In 2012, Williams was just a freshman, but managed to make some noise in a running back corps with a junior (Knile Davis) and two seniors (Dennis Johnson & Ronnie Wingo Jr.). Williams had 45 carries during the tumultuous 2012 season. Those carries largely came in the last third of the season when many Razorback fans went camping or went shopping at the mall instead of games. Anything to avoid a once promising team that had gone off the rails. While Arkansas fans were tuning out, Williams was tuning in to the speed of college ball and making sure the next coaching staff wouldn't be able to overlook him.
When Bret Bielema took over for the 2013 season, Williams was not overlooked. In fact, he found himself as a likely focal point of the offense moving forward. He was excited. Williams along with Alex Collins became one of the most productive running back duos in Arkansas history. While the 2013 season left many Hogs depressed by the 0-9 finish, Arkansas fans felt comfortable with the running game. Many expected Collins to be the lead back, but Williams made his arguments on the field, including being capable of the home run threat that Collins couldn't always match.
At the beginning of the 2014 season, Williams, Collins, and Korliss Marshall were named 1A, 1B, and 1C on the depth chart with Bielema unwilling to declare any of them being higher than the others. The play on the field certainly put Williams alone at the top during the 2014 season. Highlights from the season included a season- and career-long run of 90 yards against Nicholls State, a four TD performance against Texas Tech, and completed his first 1,000-yard rushing season in the 11th game of the season. Williams was named to the All-SEC 2nd team at the end of the season.
For my money, his most impressive play of the 2014 season starts at the 4:47 minute of this video with a little 19 yard catch against Texas A&M.
The Arkansas backfield was poised for great things heading into the 2015 season, but Williams reluctantly watched from the sideline due to injury. Williams did see the field during the kneel down in the Liberty Bowl game against Kansas State as a tribute to his time spent in a Razorback uniform.
The Next Chapter
Williams could've declared for the NFL in 2015, but elected to return to Arkansas for his senior season. After suffering a his foot injury he could have used a redshirt season to come back in 2016. I think Williams is making the smart choice by declaring for the NFL. He's already seen how much football time an injury can cost him, and he doesn't really have a lot more to prove in college. His 2013 and 2014 seasons showcase his skills well enough.
Williams gets to the second level very quickly, and doesn't shy away from contact. He's a very physical running back that chooses running lanes well. As his highlights show, he can lower his shoulder to bowl over a defender, bounce off would-be tacklers, stiff arm smaller corner backs, and hurdle diving tacklers (I know this sounds like I'm describing the controls in Madden, but Williams does all of these things in the highlights above).
Arkansas in the past four years has not had many home run threats as they moved the ball up the field in an ever growing cloud of dust, but Williams has been able to break off some long runs. It's easy to draw comparisons to his backfield mate for two years, and while you can say that you always know what to expect from Collins, Williams is the more likely back to improvise and show some creativity. Williams won't surprise you with athleticism or strength, but will turn a five-yard gain into a 25-yard gain, and you're still not sure how he broke those four tackles even when you watch the replay. Williams also doesn't get any knock on pass protection, and was often the back chosen when Bielema needed the extra blocker on passing downs.
The biggest knock on Williams will be not playing in 2015. "What have you done for me lately?" Well, Williams has been resting and not getting hit. When he gets on an NFL practice field, the coaches will be quick to get him in some physical drills to see how quickly he gets into game shape and gets used to getting hit. He has demonstrated a physicality in the Arkansas running system, but how many times has it caused him to seek out a defender to hit as opposed to getting the extra yards he might get with better vision?
No one has ever questioned his heart and his effort, but Williams has disappeared in a few games. There have been times when he's gotten the carries only because Collins had a fumble or wasn't as willing to protect the quarterback as Williams is. The closest he has ever come to taking over a game was against Texas Tech's putrid run defense in 2014. Four scores and 145 yards is great, but Tech was letting anyone run through them that day.
A lot of Hog fans will always wonder if the season may have been a little smoother with Williams in the backfield in 2015, but at this point, we're all just glad to see him get his shot at the next level. He always represented the U of A well and was a fan favorite. Williams' name won't be held in the same rarefied air as Darren McFadden, but he's really not that far behind. In my book he reminds me a lot of Deangelo Williams, and I hope he has an equally long NFL career.