Flashback: Jamal Willis’ Impactful Debut (1991)

As the 2011 season approaches, Brigham Young Cougars fans are anxious for several players to not only make their debut, but to also make an impact.

Twenty years ago, a running back from Las Vegas, Nevada, made his debut. With consensus All-American and Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer back for his senior season, no offensive newcomer was expected to have much of an impact. However, at 6’3” and 220 pounds, Willis was a rare breed. His size made him tough to take down. His fluid running motion and great hands made him a passing threat out of the backfield.

Willis made his presence felt in 1991. He finished the season second on the team in rushing yards (520), tied for second on the team for touchdowns scored (8, 6 rushing and 2 receiving), and third on the team for most all-purpose yards (942—520 rushing, 209 receiving, 213 kickoff returns). Lack of touches was the only thing holding Willis back from being the team’s leading offensive weapon, after Detmer. Willis led the team with a 6.1 yards per carry average, a 21.3 yards per kickoff return average, and his 19.0 yards per reception average was third. With his 520 rushing yards, Willis set a new standard for freshmen running backs.

Just as all freshmen have to do, Willis needed a few games to make the transition to college football. This transition is especially difficult for freshmen at a school with a sophisticated passing game like BYU. It wasn’t until game five against Utah State that Willis started to get his number called regularly. He finished the game against the Aggies with 8 carries for 48 yards. Modest, but it was progress. Two games later, against Hawaii, Willis became an integral part of the Cougar offense. He had 82 yards on just 10 carries and scored two touchdowns, including a season long run of 44 yards. The next game at New Mexico was Willis’ first 100 yard game. He had 112 yards on 18 carries. Two games later against Wyoming, he went over 100 again. This time it was 14 carries for 121 yards and one touchdown.

Willis’ best game came against San Diego State in that wacky 52-52 tie. He had 66 yards rushing on just 11 carries with one touchdown. Through the air, Willis exploded for 163 yards on 8 receptions with 2 touchdowns.

The true impact of Willis’ contributions is reflected in each of his touchdowns. He scored BYU’s first touchdown on the game’s opening drive. When BYU trailed 45-17 late in the third quarter, Willis jump started BYU’s comeback. He took a 10 yard dump off from Detmer, and turned it into a 49-yard touchdown by breaking a tackle and juking and jiving his way past three other Aztec defenders. Willis’ third and final touchdown came with under 30 seconds to play. From 5-yards out, Willis took the handoff and went in untouched to put BYU an extra point away from tying the game.

Additionally, Willis kept BYU's next to last scoring drive alive when he made an amazing, leaping one-hand grab on 3rd down and 5.

Jamal Willis truly had an impactful debut. This truth was illustrated in the season finale—the Holiday Bowl—when Willis was the team’s leading rusher in every way: most carries, most yards, best yards per carry average, and longest run.

Now, it is Drew Phillips, Ross Apo, Uona Kaveinga, and Hebron Fangupo, among others, who can make a splash in their debut seasons and directly impact the level of success BYU reaches this year.

More Flashbacks can be found on the Flashbacks page.

The Editor appreciates all feedback. He can be reached via email at bluecougarfootball@gmail.com