MORGANTOWN, W. Va. – This Saturday, Dana Holgorsen will be dealing with a problem that sounds more like one Bob Huggins is familiar with.
The most exciting freshman in the Big 12 is in town, and he’s a Kansas Jayhawk. But this one plays football.
He is Pooka Williams, and so far his play is every bit as memorable as his name. Williams is already outpacing the legendary Gale Sayers for the fastest career start by a Kansas running back, rushing for a Big-12 leading 474 yards in his first four games. (Sayers had 403 yards in the first four games of his sophomore season in 1961, which was before freshmen were eligible to play varsity).
West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson only needs those four games on film to recognize that he’s never seen a player like this in Kansas colors. Gibson didn’t hesitate when asked if Williams is the most explosive Kansas player he’s ever prepared for.
“Yes,” Gibson said. “He’s a very good player, and he does it to everybody. He did it to Rutgers, he did it to Central Michigan and just did it to Oklahoma State. He did it to Baylor. He’s popped out.”
Williams is already third in the nation with eight carries of at least 20 yards despite missing the Jayhawks season opener against FCS Nicholls State because of an academic issue. None of the first four opponents he’s faced have prevented him from busting out for a gain of at least 40 yards.
“He’ll get two, three, four [yards], then 80,” Gibson said. “He can move, and he’s tough. He’s not real big, but he runs angry.”
So how the heck did such a dynamic player end up at lowly Kansas, which hasn’t recorded a winning season since 2008?
As Gibson noticed, size is a factor. The Jayhawks list Williams at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, but both those figures may be cases of creative accounting.
“He was probably about 130 pounds as a freshman,” noted his high school coach, Nick Saltaformaggio. “But you can’t hit what you can’t catch.”
Williams was a four-year standout for Saltaformaggio at Hahnville High School in Boutte, La. – one of the last buildings before the New Orleans metropolitan area gives way to the surrounding swamps.
Saltaformaggio knows talent. His alumni include former WVU receiver Darius Reynaud, former Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry and current NFL running back Alfred Blue. He thinks Williams could be the most special of them all.
“We’ve had NFL guys roll through there. He’s the next guy,” Saltaformaggio said. “The thing that makes him special amongst those guys is he’s always had that dog in him. No matter what the odds were, he was going to bring everything he has. And everything he has is way better than what most people have.”
A prime example of Williams at his most eye-popping came last season when his attempt to hurdle an opposing tackler turned into an accidental karate kick that became a bit of an internet sensation.
“He kind of drop-kicked the kid like Mr. Miyagi,” Saltaformaggio said. “He didn’t even go down. Any other kid gets tackled or run out of bounds. He didn’t flinch.”
It’s that “dog” mentality that best explains Williams’ decision to go to Kansas. Sure, it helped that he had a strong relationship with Kansas assistant coach Tony Hull, a Louisiana native. And it didn’t hurt that home-state LSU was late in the game in offering him a scholarship.
But mostly it was about embracing the biggest challenge.
“Besides his unbelievable ability, he’s a kid that accepts challenges very well,” Saltaformaggio said. “Going to Kansas and accepting the challenge of a place that’s not been overly productive in football, he felt he could change that program.
“He’s always been that type of guy. He’ll be that way when he goes to the NFL. And if he stays healthy, there’s no question he will play in the NFL.”
Saltaformaggio mused about what kind of numbers Williams might put up playing in an offense as dynamic as West Virginia’s, saying he’d probably break every record in the book. But even in another uniform, he’s the type of player the Milan Puskar Stadium crowd won’t be able to ignore.
“I’m sure West Virginia already sells out its games,” Saltaformaggio said. “And those fans will be in for a treat on Saturday.”