Just a few short weeks ago, it wasn’t completely clear how well Kentucky’s star running back and his offensive coordinator were connecting.
“He’s really doing some good things,” UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said when asked about junior running back Boom Williams in August. “But that has to be a consistent thing. And for him to have that job, you’ve got to act like it everyday.”
Fast forward a few weeks through some fast runs and a few more big-time plays and Williams is showing his coaches he can give than more than just those.
It’s always been about much more than those.
“He’s really grown up,” head coach Mark Stoops said Monday of Williams, who is averaging 116 yards a game, third-best in the Southeastern Conference. “He’s really maturing. … It’s great to see because this game is so mental. It’s such a big part of it, and he’s maturing.”
Mature is a word that’s used with regularity now when discussing Williams. It wouldn’t have been a season ago.
“I think he matured like crazy just looking at the game and how excited he was just to win the game and be a part of a victory, congratulating everybody on the sideline, his demeanor and everything has been fantastic,” Gran said of Williams after the victory over South Carolina.
Now Stoops doesn’t see a player upset about his number of carries or sitting a spell in the fourth quarter as freshman Benny Snell gobbled up yards and scored the game winner.
Instead, Stoops sees Williams seeking out Snell to celebrate.
“It’s great for him to see — him on the sidelines smacking Benny on the head and giving him a high five and cheering it with that complement, instead of it just being about Boom,” Stoops continued.
Williams wanted to show his coaches and teammates that he could be a leader. He sees himself growing up on and off the field.
“It’s all about the team,” said Williams, who has 464 yards and two touchdowns on 58 carries this season. “I wanted to be a team player and (do) whatever it takes to win. And so these last two weeks have been huge, not just for myself but the team.”
The past few weeks have been big for Williams’ confidence on the field, too. After a series of injuries that included offseason elbow surgery, the junior from Monroe, Ga., wasn’t sure how he’d feel this season.
He admitted to being tentative in the opener.
“I was nervous a little bit when I first got in there,” he said of the game against Southern Miss. “Butterflies and everything went away, and been feeling good. It’s the best that I’ve felt since I’ve been here. I just want to keep feeling that way.”
If he can stay healthy, Williams is on pace to become Kentucky’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Rafael Little in 2007.
“He’s always been a talented guy but he’s more detailed in his runs, and his mentality is much better,” Stoops said of Williams.
Part of his growth on the field has come from developing a relationship with Gran, who has coached several first-round NFL Draft picks in his 28-year career.
“We’ve had our ups and downs, but I think the relationship is good,” Gran said of the back and forth with Williams. “He knows me now and I know him. I think that’s been really good for both of us.”
One of the regular discussions is getting Williams to be a one-cut back, to have the running back always moving down the field instead of sideline to sideline trying to outrun defenders.
It will be exceptionally difficult to do much horizontal running against a defense like top-rated Alabama (4-0, 1-0 SEC) this weekend.
“We can’t go side to side on any of these SEC teams,” Gran said. “I will say this, (Williams) can sometimes, but you’ve got to pick and choose when you do that. I think he’s still gotta learn that when it’s not there, stick your foot in the ground and get us 3 yards.”
So far the most yards a single runner has been able to get against the Crimson Tide this season is 52, for Kent State’s Justin Rankin last week, but 47 of those yards came on a single run.
Williams could present more of an obstacle for the Alabama defense, which is allowing just 67.5 yards a game on the ground, fifth-best in the nation.
“He’s certainly going to be a challenge for us and maybe the best back we’ve played against so far this year,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said of Williams, who is averaging 8 yards a carry this season after setting a school record at 7.1 yards per carry last season.
Williams is tied for second nationally in runs of 10 yards or more this season with 16. He also has six carries of 20 yards or better.
Saban was complimentary of UK’s entire running back group.
“They have three backs that have been productive, in my opinion,” he said Wednesday. “He’s obviously the most productive, but they’ve been able to run the ball very effectively and they certainly controlled the game last week by controlling the line of scrimmage and running the ball against South Carolina.”
News and notes
On the weekly SEC coaches’ teleconference, Stoops said he saw Mikel Horton’s departure coming.
“It’s just one of those situations where for whatever reason he gets behind on the depth chart and has to earn the trust of the coaches and the players as he moves forward,” Stoops said of the junior running back, who has left the program but will finish the semester at Kentucky. “He was starting to do that and doing a better job and being more accountable, and then some other guys emerged.”
The head coach said they wish Horton, a four-star running back out of Ohio, “the best of luck.”
▪ Four games into the season and one of the Cats’ most productive offensive targets last season, Dorian Baker, has yet to make a catch. Stoops said the junior wide-out continues to battle a hamstring injury, but is listed as day-to-day and has been able to participate some in practices.
“He’s getting close,” Stoops said. “We thought we had him back a couple weeks ago and just kind of reaggravated it just a touch.”
Kentucky at No. 1 Alabama
7 p.m. (ESPN)