Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin, pre-practice Oct. 19
Following his 217-yard, 40-carry performance in Saturday’s win over Colorado State, Boise State junior running back Jeremy McNichols doesn’t feel he has to one-up college football’s second-leading rusher Thursday night: BYU senior Jamaal Williams.
“He’s a good back. ... But I just focus on what I’ve got to do,” McNichols said.
The rest of the Broncos will definitely keep a close eye on Williams.
“I’m very impressed with (Williams). He’s the standard, really, in the country as far as ‘this guy plays this position the right way,’ ” Boise State running backs coach Lee Marks said.
“He plays with a chip on his shoulder. Both those guys do the exact same thing.”
Thursday’s game between Boise State and BYU features a matchup of two of the best running backs in the nation. Both are pivotal to their teams’ success, and both are making their case to be one of their schools’ all-time greats.
Here is a scary idea for Boise State opponents: McNichols has just 18 games of experience as a true go-to running back.
In those games, he’s averaged 117 rushing yards and 40 receiving yards per game. He’s scored 40 touchdowns in that span, at least one in each game.
“To me, he’s the most versatile running back in the country,” Marks said. “We haven’t really tapped into what he can do. That’s my opinion; I might be a little biased.”
The mileage on the junior is not typical for many backs. He spent one season in high school at the position and played a running back/receiver hybrid as a freshman at Boise State.
Granted, 40 carries (and four receptions against CSU) with another game five days later isn’t ideal, but Marks said Tuesday that McNichols had his two best practices of the year this week.
“He’s healthy. He’s tough. He’s built for it,” co-offensive coordinator Scott Huff said.
That workhorse mentality has manifested itself in how he performs late in games. McNichols averages 3.3 yards per carry in the first quarter, and 5.8 in the last three.
“It’s like taking a sledgehammer to a rock. You’ve got to keep chipping away at it, and eventually you’ll get one of those big cracks, then it’s going to go, and that’s what happened,” Marks said. “I can’t wait to see what he can do (against BYU).”
McNichols, who set a school record for carries against the Rams, is feeling strong.
“I think we have some momentum going into this week. ... We’ve been preparing for it since we’ve seen it on the schedule,” McNichols said.
At his current pace, McNichols will end this season with more than 3,000 career yards. Should he return next season, Cedric Minter’s 4,475 career yards are in sight. He also is on pace to be the second Boise State back with at least 300 carries in a season, and he needs only seven touchdowns to pass Doug Martin (48) for fourth in school history.
“He’ll end up being one of the best running backs, definitely, ever here. No question about that,” said Marks, a former Boise State running back. “God willing, everything will work out for him, and maybe he’ll end up being the best, you never know.”
Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos uses a familiar name when trying to describe the BYU back.
“I think that’s what everybody’s looking for when you’re recruiting a tailback. His size-speed combination is off the charts. ... He’s very similar to Jay Ajayi,” Avalos said.
Williams, at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, is slightly bigger than the former Boise State great was as a junior (6 feet, 216 pounds) before declaring for the NFL Draft. Both can bruise a defense and leave them gasping for air.
In last Friday’s 28-21 double-overtime win over Mississippi State, Williams became the Cougars’ all-time leading rusher on a 9-yard attempt in the first overtime. His 3,468 yards eclipsed Harvey Unga’s career mark of 3,455, and he has plenty of time to create even more distance.
“I’m grateful to get it. I have to give credit to all my linemen, tight ends, everyone who blocked for me in my career of rushing,” Williams said. “... Honestly, I wish I could put them before my name because you can’t do it without the line; you can’t do it without everybody and their effort. I just wanted to say thank you, and I appreciate it.”
Though he deflects the praise, Boise State coaches are more than willing to provide it.
“Since we’ve been here at Boise State, Jamaal’s one of the best backs (we’ve played),” Boise State third-year coach Bryan Harsin said.
Said Avalos, simply: “Jamaal is a hell of a running back.”
Williams did not play in the Cougars’ 35-24 win over Boise State last year in Provo as he withdrew from the university for undisclosed personal reasons. He ran for 70 yards against the Broncos in 2014 and 107 in 2013.
Back on the field, he changes the complexity of the BYU offense and how Boise State gets ready for it.
“Jamaal, he’s a stud, one of the better players in the country at that position. To me, that’s an awesome challenge for the defense, and we have to embrace that,” Harsin said. “... I feel like we’ve got some pretty good dudes back there as well.”
Suffice it to say, BYU senior quarterback Taysom Hill, who hasn’t played against the Broncos since 2013, has been happy to get back the workhorse who has four games with at least 162 yards this season.
“I told him it’s been so much fun playing with him,” Hill told the Deseret News. “The kid deserves it. He’s worked so hard; he deserves everything he’s done because he’s earned it.”
McNichols vs. Williams: Tale of the tape