Redshirt freshman Avery Williams was the Boise State football team’s X-factor going into the season.
Nobody knew exactly where or how, but everyone seemed to believe he’d make an impact on the 2017 Broncos.
Williams went far beyond that vague notion — delivering three punt returns that were among the most important plays of the season and developing into a surprise starter at cornerback the last two months of the regular season.
Without the former walk-on, the Broncos likely wouldn’t be Mountain West champions or playing Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday.
“He’s going to be a special player,” special teams coach Kent Riddle predicted after Williams rocked Albertsons Stadium with a punt return for a touchdown on his first college play in the Sept. 2 season opener.
That touchdown sparked the Broncos to a 24-13 win against Troy, the eventual Sun Belt co-champion. Opponents rarely gave him opportunities to return punts after that, but punters tend to rush when they’re kicking out of their own end zone.
Williams started the 31-14 upset of then-No. 19 San Diego State in October with a 53-yard punt return. That was set up by the special teams and defense stuffing the Aztecs at their own 13-yard line.
Then after opposing punters spent five games neutralizing him — Williams had 4 punt-return yards in that stretch — he provided a 36-yard return to the Fresno State 4-yard line in the Mountain West championship game. That set up one of the two touchdowns the Broncos scored in a 17-14 win.
Fresno State was on its own 1-yard line for that punt.
“You might just see the punt return on a single play, but what set it up was the rest of the team,” Williams said. “It changes a lot when they’re backed up. They’ve got to get it out quick. They can’t take their time back there. Whenever we get the ball quickly, we’re going to take the opportunity.”
Williams has shown a knack for patience and opportunism. In eight of 13 games, he finished with fewer than 10 punt-return yards. Twice he didn’t have a single punt return. Four times he didn’t have any return yards. Opponents kicked the ball out of bounds or booted it high — sacrificing distance if necessary.
“It can get frustrating at times,” Williams said, “but I know when they kick it high and kick it short, we’re winning field position for the offense. I’ll fair-catch every time if it gives us 20-plus yards.”
His contributions on special teams — he also returns kickoffs (24.9-yard average) — earned him Boise State’s special teams MVP honor and an All-Mountain West second-team selection.
He also found his home on defense. He created buzz in spring ball and fall camp with his knack for creating turnovers but bounced between cornerback, nickel and even running back during the offseason. Coaches inserted him into the starting lineup at cornerback Oct. 6 at BYU and he stuck, finishing sixth on the team with 40 tackles, second with eight pass breakups and tied for third with two interceptions.
“I have complete trust in him,” sophomore safety DeAndre Pierce said. “... It’s something that he’s always been prepared for.”
Williams has the attributes of a future captain on top of his on-field versatility. Plus, he’s a fan favorite.
As high school stars around the country prepare to sign with college football programs next week, it’s worth remembering that Williams wasn’t a part of those festivities in 2016.
“That was a tough time for me,” he said.
He was overlooked despite a standout career at a well-regarded high school in heavily recruited California. Also overlooked were Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Leighton Vander Esch and All-Mountain West center Mason Hampton — two more former walk-ons.
Vander Esch and Hampton are “the best Broncos possible,” Williams said, because of the way they’ve built themselves into college standouts.
Williams is well on his way to doing the same. Coaches put him on scholarship before the season.
“I bleed blue,” Williams said. “They gave me this opportunity. I wasn’t going to let them down. It’s everything I’ve dreamed of and more.”
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at ccripe@ idahostatesman.com, 208-377-6398 or @chaddcripe on Twitter.
Oregon’s star running back won’t play
Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman won’t play in Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl, coach Mario Cristobal said Thursday.
That could be a boost for Boise State, as Freeman is No. 6 in Football Bowl Subdivision history with a school-record 5,621 career rushing yards. He has 1,475 yards this season.
Freeman said after the Ducks’ regular-season finale Nov. 25 that he was not sure if he would play in the bowl. A likely NFL draft pick, he joins the recent trend of some top players opting not to play in the postseason, hoping to avoid injury.
The two backs on the depth chart behind Freeman are senior Kani Benoit (573 yards, 10 TDs) and junior Tony Brooks-James (485 yards, two TDs).
“(Freeman) is one of the best running backs in the nation — big, physical, fast,” Boise State sophomore safety DeAndre Pierce said. “But Oregon ... they’ve been good consistently. They have three running backs that can all go.”