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Running back James Williams leaves Washington State for NFL Draft. ‘I feel like I’m ready for it’

UPDATED: Sat., Jan. 5, 2019, 9:07 p.m.

Washington State  running back James Williams  hurdles Iowa State’s Brian Peavy  during the first half of the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 28 in San Antonio. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State running back James Williams hurdles Iowa State’s Brian Peavy during the first half of the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 28 in San Antonio. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – James Williams spent considerable time flirting with a decision to forfeit his senior season in lieu of an early escape to the NFL.

The Washington State running back weighed the pros and cons before the Cougars’ appearance in the Alamo Bowl, consulting with family members, friends and coaches.

Williams leaned one way, then went the other.

“I was initially going to stay, and we talked about it more and more and I changed my mind, and I feel like I’m ready for it,” he said.

The player WSU fans affectionately call “Boobie” finally made his mind up Saturday afternoon, announcing on Twitter he would forgo his final season of college eligibility and focus on preparing for the NFL draft this April.

Williams, who has been engaged since the spring, had announced on New Year’s Eve he and fiance Rye Kanani are expecting a child in July and wrote in his Twitter post, “I hit a triple lottery when I arrived at Washington State University!”

Hours after making his decision public, Williams told The Spokesman-Review his new family – and a variety of other factors – went into the decision-making process.

The running back from Burbank, California, will return home to Southern California for the next seven to eight weeks as he begins preparations for the predraft process, and believes it would’ve been tricky to navigate that same process this time next year with a newborn baby.

“I’m a family-oriented person, so I’d rather sacrifice this little portion of time to get to where I’m trying to be, and then once I’m in the NFL and hopefully everything goes smooth and I’m making enough to support a family, so when my baby is born we have enough to support,” Williams said. “If I ran into this situation next year, I’d be away from my kid for three to four months, whatever the case may be.”

Cougars coach Mike Leach, who seldom advocates for players leaving college early, encouraged his running back to return for a senior season.

“The NFL advised James to stay in school. I agree with the NFL, but in any case we wish James the very best of luck with his future,” Leach said via telephone Saturday evening.

It took Williams just three seasons to become one of the most productive offensive players in school history. While he hasn’t appeared on many NFL mock draft boards, and isn’t expected to be a high-round selection, the running back is banking on the fact he’ll capitalize on his best collegiate season.

“A running back’s shelf life isn’t the longest, especially when you get to the NFL, as well,” WSU running backs coach Eric Mele said. “It’s a less than three years type of thing. He’s been healthy, as healthy as he’s ever been now.”

But Williams also leaves WSU without an undergraduate degree – something his coaches have encouraged him to obtain, and something the player has vowed to complete over the next few years.

“Obviously, getting the degree, we recruit these guys here and want to make sure they leave with a college degree in hand.” Mele said.

Former WSU running backs coach Jim Mastro, now the run game coordinator at Oregon, offered the same advice to Williams when his former player informed him he’d be leaving early.

“That’s going to be one of my top priorities, is I’m going to get my degree no matter what,” Williams said. “But I feel like I’m ready, and there’s some people that don’t think I’m ready yet, but people that know me know if I’m going to do something, I’m going to work damn hard to do it.”

As the primary tailback for the 11-win Cougars, Williams scored 16 touchdowns this season – 12 rushing and four more receiving – and would’ve needed one more to match the single-season record set by Steve Broussard in 1989.

Statistically, the 2018 season was Williams’ best. He improved in almost every category, boosting his total rushing yards, total passing yards, yards per carry and yards per catch.

Mele felt his running back could have witnessed another spike in 2019 – “I think that trend would’ve continued,” the coach said – but Williams wasn’t confident another season would drastically change his draft stock.

“I feel like I’m going to get no better, because I’m going to come back and catch a bunch of balls and probably rush for 500 yards next season,” he said. “That could be different. I could get hurt – I mean, I could get hurt walking down the street right now out there. I’m healthy, so that’s my main thing.”

Among running backs at the FBS level, nobody had more receptions than Williams, who finished the year with a career-high 81 catches.

Used frequently in Leach’s Air Raid attack, Williams finishes his career tied with Jamal Morrow for career receptions by a WSU running back (201) and overall career receptions. With another season, he would’ve leapfrogged former Cougars receiver River Cracraft for second on the all-time list and been in striking distance of Gabe Marks.

Williams believes he has more to offer at the next level. He didn’t break many big runs at WSU, partially because defenses facing the Air Raid often dropped more players back into pass coverage.

“People don’t really see me breaking 40 or 50-yard touchdowns,” he said. “But that’s because how the defense plays us (at WSU).”

Williams, along with Morrow and Gerard Wicks, helped WSU’s running backs corps record consecutive 1,000-yard rushing/receiving seasons in 2016 and ’17. Williams finishes his college career with 27 touchdowns and 2,976 all-purpose yards.

As for WSU’s backfield in 2019?

Max Borghi split time with Williams this season, and the Colorado native is sure to have a more prominent role in the offense next year without his teammate in the picture. Borghi rushed for seven touchdowns this season and caught four more. He rushed for 353 yards and had 352 more receiving.

“He’s been doing it this year, and he’s matured a lot his freshman year, and I feel like he’s going to come back and he’s going to elevate his game, and bring whoever comes in under his wing and do the same thing me and Keith (Harrington) did to him,” Williams said.

The Cougars also signed two running backs in the most recent recruiting class. Jamir Thomas of Massillon, Ohio, and Jouvensly Bazile of Naples, Florida, will join WSU in the fall. Both could compete for a rotational spot behind Borghi.

“We don’t go out looking for guys and tell them they’re not going to play,” Mele said. “Both those guys are going to come in and be expected to compete for jobs next year.”

“Well, we’ve got Max and we’ve got two other quality guys coming in,” Leach said. “I think we have some quality players, we don’t have as much experience as we’d like, but we definitely have some quality players.”

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