Rawleigh Williams belongs on list of best Bielema RBs

By: Jimmy Carter
Published: Tuesday, May 9, 2017
Wisconsin running back Montee Ball (left) and Arkansas running backs Alex Collins (center) and Rawleigh Williams (right) had breakout seasons under head coach Bret Bielema. (AP Photos)
Wisconsin running back Montee Ball (left) and Arkansas running backs Alex Collins (center) and Rawleigh Williams (right) had breakout seasons under head coach Bret Bielema. (AP Photos)

— The names are easily recognizable for college football fans across the country: PJ Hill, John Clay, James White, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon, Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.

Over the course of the last decade, each player had multiple 1,000-yard seasons, earned all-conference recognition and played in the NFL.

They are the best running backs Bret Bielema has coached. Rawleigh Williams belongs on that list.

Williams announced his decision to walk away from the game in an open letter Monday following a second neck injury. The serious nature of the injuries and potential long-term implications they carried cut short a blossoming career.

Unlike the other seven names above, Williams won’t have the opportunity to run for a second (or third) 1,000-yard season and will never get his chance to live out his dream of playing in the NFL.

But there’s no doubt Williams had the talent to play at the next level. He was one of three rising juniors involved in Arkansas’ pro day in February, the product of NFL personnel expressing interest in him as a prospect.

Because of the injury, Williams doesn’t have the body of work the other names on the list have accumulated. But he belongs in the conversation, nevertheless.

His one healthy season was that good.

Williams led the SEC in rushing during the regular season and finished with 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore last fall. Of the other seven players, only Hill and Clay led the conference in rushing in one of their first two collegiate seasons.

It’s important to keep in mind Williams had that caliber of a season coming off a season-ending and career-threatening neck injury his freshman year. He also did it running behind arguably the weakest offensive line in Bielema’s head coaching tenure.

Bielema’s teams have produced five running backs who were taken in the NFL Draft: Gordon (first round), Ball (second), White (fourth) and Jonathan Williams and Collins (fifth).

Ball and Gordon were megastars at Wisconsin, both winning the Doak Walker Award and earning All-American honors. White was as an All-Big Ten performer. Collins and Williams were both second-team All-SEC selections. Collins finished second in program history in career rushing yards while Jonathan Williams is just outside the top 10.

Rawleigh Williams was named first-team All-SEC by the Associated Press in December and would’ve been knocking on the door of the school’s top-five career rushing leaders with a junior year similar to his sophomore campaign.

His two seasons were in the same ballpark as Bielema’s future NFL players from a college production standpoint and he was explosive as all of them, save for Gordon and White.

He averaged 5.6 yards per carry as a sophomore and 5.4 for his career. Comparable to most of the others:

Career yards per carry

Gordon: 7.8

White: 6.2

J. Williams: 5.7

Collins: 5.6

Ball: 5.6

R. Williams: 5.4

He averaged 104.6 yards per game as a sophomore and 80.7 for his career:

Career yards per game

Gordon: 109.2

Ball: 104.9

Collins: 97.5

R. Williams: 80.7

White: 77.2

J. Williams: 64.5

Williams is the only one of the bunch who never got to play as an upperclassman, but his 1,614 yards through his first two seasons rank third among the six backs through their sophomore years, trailing only Collins and White. His 13 rushing touchdowns rank fourth behind Ball, Collins and White.

But every situation is obviously different and impacts raw production. Positional depth, line play and play calling all factor in.

The Wisconsin backs had the luxury of playing behind some dominant offensive lines, while Williams was a workhorse in 2016 as a result of the lack of depth and experience behind him. His 245 carries were more than any of the quintet had in their sophomore years.

But he could pop big runs, too. Gordon and White especially were breakaway threats for the Badgers, but Williams was as good or better at getting loose for long gains than the others.

What he lacked in great speed or flash, he made up for with vision and patience, which gave him a perhaps underrated ability to produce explosive plays.

On average, he broke a 20-plus yard run once every 17.5 carries last year. This is how he compared to the other four for his career (note: Ball’s numbers do not include his freshman season, because a breakdown of runs earlier than 2010 is not archived):

Frequency of 20+ yard runs

Gordon: 1 every 10.7 carries

White: 16.1

Collins: 19.6

R. Williams: 20.1

Ball: 21.7

J. Williams: 25.4

Expand it to runs of 30 or more yards and Williams averaged one per 35 carries in 2016. The career comparison:

Frequency of 30+ yard runs

Gordon: 1 every 18.6 carries

White: 32.2

R. Williams: 37.6

J. Williams: 50.1

Ball: 55.1

Collins: 60.5

Take it out even further to runs of 40 or more, Williams popped one every 49 carries as a sophomore. And the career breakdown:

Frequency of 40+ yard runs

Gordon: 1 every 23.4 carries

White: 45.9

R. Williams: 50.2

J. Williams: 67.7

Ball: 82.6

Collins: 95

He was also one of the more productive receiving threats on the list. His 15 catches for 220 yards last year were more than Jonathan Williams or Collins ever put up in a single season and better than the Wisconsin backs, other than Ball and Hill.

Williams accomplished everything in just two years, really only a year-and-a-half. There will always be a ‘what if?’ around his playing career. But what he did accomplish was special.

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