Coach Robert Anae expects big things from Jamaal Williams this coming season. Last year Williams rushed for 1,233 yards, giving him 1,988 yards in his two years in Provo.
Anae thinks that the junior running back from Fontana, Calif. will one day eclipse Harvey Unga as BYU’s all-time leading rusher. At BYU’s Media Day Anae said, “I’ve already apologized to Harvey, because that record’s going down.”
With all this hype surrounding Williams going into his junior season, let’s see where he currently ranks among BYU’s all-time greatest running backs.
Before LaVell Edwards redefined the passing game, he relied on the legs of Pete Van Valkenberg, who led the NCAA in rushing during Edwards’ first season as head coach of the Cougars. In 1972, “Fleet Pete” rushed for 1,386 yards and was named third team AP All-American.
Jamaal Williams burst on the scene as a freshman, leading the team in rushing with 775 yards while scoring 12 touchdowns. Not to be outdone, during his sophomore campaign he teamed up with quarterback Taysom Hill to help pace the Cougars to the 10th best rushing attack in the nation. Heading into his junior season, Williams has been named to the Doak Walker award watch list.
Jeff Blanc led the Cougars in rushing for three consecutive seasons from 1974-76, but Blanc wasn’t just a threat rushing the ball. Blanc was also an excellent pass catcher and return man. For his career, Blanc gained 3,580 yards from scrimmage while scoring 29 touchdowns.
In 1996, Brian McKenzie teamed up with Ronney Jenkins to rush for 1,683 yards and 22 touchdowns as the Cougars finished the season 14–1 and a berth in their first New Year’s Day bowl game. McKenzie wasn’t just a one-hit wonder. He led the Cougars in rushing again in 1997, racking up 1,004 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Lakei Heimuli’s career spanned some of the greatest teams in Cougar history. During his time at BYU he compiled a career record of 43–9, and was one of the stars of the National Championship team in 1984. Heimuli rushed for 2,710 yards and 30 touchdowns in his career and was twice named Honorable Mention All-American.
When Curtis Brown finished his career in 2006, he was BYU’s all-time leading rusher. He finished his career with 3,193 yards rushing and 34 total touchdowns. He also was the first Cougar runner to have back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. One of Brown’s hallmarks was his consistency. He never finished a season with less than 4.2 yards per carry and finished his career with a 5 yards per carry average.
Jamal Willis has done something no other Cougar running back has done. Take a team into Notre Dame Stadium and leave with a victory. As a senior, Willis rushed for 75 yards and a touchdown and hauled in five passes for 83 yards and another score as the Cougars defeated the Fighting Irish 21–14. For his career, Willis rushed for 2,970 yards and 35 touchdowns.
During Harvey Unga’s three seasons he was a model of consistency. He rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons for the Cougars, finishing his career as the Cougars’ all-time leading rusher with 3,455 yards. Besides piling up yards at a record-breaking pace, Unga’s teams also piled up victories. During his time as a starter, his teams went 32–7. If it wasn’t for a suspension going into his senior season, Unga could have put the rushing record way out of reach, but as it stands Williams should be able to easily catch him.
Some might say that I have Ronney Jenkins ranked too high on this list. My counterpoint would be that maybe I don’t have him ranked high enough. Jenkins was one of the few backs in BYU’s history that possessed the rare combination of speed and power. As a sophomore in 1998, Jenkins rushed for 1,307 yards and 13 touchdowns. His promising career for the Cougars was cut short due to run-ins with the Honor Code, or he may have been able to claim the top spot on this list.
Was there any doubt who would be number 1? In 2001, Luke Staley was a machine. He rushed for a BYU single-season record 1,582 yards and 24 touchdowns, following the season Staley was named the Doak Walker award winner. Staley also holds the career record for rushing touchdowns with 41 and total touchdowns with 48. More importantly he holds the record for biggest calves I’ve seen in person.
Mug shots courtesy BYU Photo.