For starters, he’s not a member of the LDS Church. He’s an African-American. And he signed with the Cougars at the tender age of 16.
It required a leap of faith for the Fontana, Calif., native to choose BYU over a host of other schools vying for his services out of high school, including national powerhouse Oregon.
“Jamaal had to trust us to come to BYU,” said coach Bronco Mendenhall. “There are a lot of things in the typical stereotype of a BYU player that Jamaal doesn’t fit. But he trusted us, and he’s had a great experience here. I think that’s endeared him to us, and vice versa.”
And Williams has also endeared himself to Cougar Nation.
“I think (the fans) recognize a kid that’s maybe made a unique choice,” he said. “I think they are proud of him for that because he’s not seeking to be outside of the standards, he’s working hard to be with them.”
During the loss to Utah, Williams felt the love from BYU fans as he lay motionless on the turf after suffering a concussion and stinger. Later, while he was in the hospital and in the days that followed, many reached out to him to express their respect for him and wish him the speedy recovery.
“I felt important,” he recalled. “People actually cared for me. I got text messages, mentions on Instagram from fans, family members, rivalry players. It was good to see that football brings people together, even if you get hurt.”
From the beginning of her son’s recruitment to BYU, Williams’ mom, Nicolle, loved what the school stands for and its Honor Code.
“It’s funny because at first he was a little skeptical. Growing up, he was never an outgoing person,” said Nicolle Williams, who travels to every BYU game, both home and away. “The person Jamaal is now, that wasn’t Jamaal. He wouldn’t talk. It was just video games and spending time at home. He wouldn’t talk in class or anything. The atmosphere, and the school itself, is helping him grow. That atmosphere is molding him into a respectable, admirable young man. I’m very proud that he made the decision to go to BYU. I didn’t have anything to do with it. That was my choice, but it was his choice, and he made the choice and I’m pretty happy with it. I have friends and colleagues who never knew about or watched BYU. Now, everywhere we go, they’re always talking about BYU and wearing something with BYU on it. He visits his friends at other schools. He says, ‘Mom, BYU isn’t that bad.’ I said, ‘I told you so. You’re going to make whatever it is.’ He used to wear an earring, but he doesn’t wear that anymore. He can always wear an earring later on. There were certain things that he accepted, and things that he is able to do. It will help him in the real world.”
Williams said he’s enjoying his BYU experience.
“I felt like this place was the best place to be, even though you want to be with family members and friends, you still have to do what’s best for you, for your situation. This was the best place for me. I’m grateful I came here.”
On Signing Day in 2012, former BYU recruiting coordinator Joe DuPaix raved about Williams’ potential and was convinced that he could thrive in Provo.
“What his heart is, and the way he acts, and who he is and what he stands for. He comes from a phenomenal family,” DuPaix said. “He is a great football player, a physical football player. He likes to run people over. When I was talking to him on the phone after he signed, he said, ‘Coach, I already feel way more confident and grown up now that I’m coming to BYU.’ It’s going to be very important for us to surround him with the exact right people. Without question, we’ll have a plan for that. I don’t have any doubt in my mind that he will be successful. There’s going to be a lot of hype about Jamaal. He’s young, and he’s talented.”
More than 18 months later, Mendenhall is very pleased with Williams, both on and off the field.
“He’s great. Always has been,” the coach said. “He’s really low maintenance. He just fits in here. He’s in class, he’s behaving in the community, he’s doing the right things. And then he just runs like crazy and he loves football. In fact, he called me this summer, thanking me for being here while he was running in the stadium on his own. Not many people do that.”
If Williams continues on his current pace, he should shatter Harvey Unga’s all-time rushing record of 3,455 early in his senior season — if sophomore quarterback Taysom Hill doesn’t beat him to it (Williams has run for 1,401 yards in his 1 1/2 seasons as a Cougar, while Hill has accumulated 1,108 yards.)
Many of Williams’ friends and relatives were surprised by his decision to go to BYU.
“They were a little iffy about me coming here at first,” said Williams. “They wondered why I did it. But now, they’re grateful I came here. They like that I’m doing great things here and showing all of the high schoolers back home that you don’t have to go to the most popular school to have a big impact on the team. You can go to a place like BYU, somewhere that’s not really known about, and you can make a big impact. People now know about BYU more from not just me but other players, too. My family members and friends have more info about BYU. I have cousins getting recruited, and I can tell them how I feel about it. … This is the best place for me.”