On a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, the Brigham Young Cougars coaches were feeling lucky. They rolled the dice and offered a scholarship to a running back from Bonanza High School. After his true freshman in 1991, the BYU coaches knew they had hit the jackpot with Jamal Willis.
BYU lost running backs Matt Bellini, Mike Salido, and Stacey Corley when they graduated following the 1990 season. Leading rusher Peter Tuipulotu did return in 1991, but someone was needed to be his backup. Willis was more than willing, but so was another new freshman Mark Atuaia.
In the beginning, Atuaia had the upper hand. Willis had just one carry for zero yards in the first four games. His contributions were limited to kickoff returns, while Atuaia had 10 carries for 40 yards.
When Willis finally received an opportunity, he was sure to take advantage of it. Against Utah State, Willis carried the ball eight times. The coaches must have been impressed with his 6.0 yards per carry average in that game because he got eight more carries the next week against UTEP.
In game seven, Willis made a push to be the team’s feature back the second half of the season. He rushed for a team-high 82 yards, averaged 8.2 yards per carry, and scored two touchdowns, including a 44-yard jaunt that was the longest run for any BYU player that year.
With an expanded role in the offense, Willis really started to shine. Two of the next three games, he went over 100 yards (112 vs. New Mexico, 121 vs. Wyoming). However, it wasn’t until a nationally televised game with San Diego State on ESPN that Willis was fully integrated into the offense.
Aztec running back Marshall Faulk was the more hyped freshman, but Willis was the one who made game-changing, highlight-reel plays in crunch time. He used great open field running for a 49-yard touchdown reception that started to turn the game around. A magnificent, one-handed catch to convert a third down was clutch, and it kept BYU’s hopes alive. With less than a minute to play, Willis scored the game tying touchdown when he raced five yards, untouched, into the end zone. This score completed an epic comeback in a wild 52-52 tie.
Willis finished the game with 229 yards of offense. Faulk had 234 yards, but Willis had a much better 12.1 yard average on 19 touches (11 rushes, 8 receptions) than Faulk’s 9 yard average on 26 touches (20 rushes, 6 receptions).
It was official: Willis was the complete package.
BYU was back on ESPN against the no. 7 ranked Iowa Hawkeyes for the Holiday Bowl. The Hawkeyes had one of the best defenses in the nation. Willis still logged 100 yards of offense (61 rushing, 39 receiving), as he helped BYU to another impressive tie 13-13.
Jamal Willis set a new standard for freshmen running backs at pass-happy BYU. Even with Ty Detmer at the helm, Willis set a school record for most rushing yards by a freshman (520) and most rushing touchdowns by a freshman (6). His 6.0 yards per carry average was also very impressive.
Why not higher?
Willis had no offensive output the first four games of the season. He also had no impact in the passing department until game 11.
Breakout game: Hawaii
Best game: San Diego State
Game-by-game Stats, 1991
Note: Bowl stats were not included with season totals in 1991. The totals in parenthesis reflect what the season totals would be if the bowl game was included.
Florida State: 0 carries, 0 yards
UCLA: 0 car., 0 yards
Penn State: 1 car., 0 yards
Air Force: 0 car. 0 yards
Utah State: 8 car., 48 yards
UTEP: 8 car., 33 yards
Hawaii: 10 car., 82 yards*, 2 TD*
New Mexico: 18 car., 112 yards*
Colorado State: 5 car., 18 yards, 1 TD*
Wyoming: 14 car., 121 yards*, 1 TD
San Diego State: 11 car., 66 yards, 1 TD*
Utah: 11 car., 40 yards, 1 TD
Iowa: 13 car., 61 yards*
Totals: 86 car., 520 yards, 6 TD (99 car., 581 yards)
* = Team High
Florida State: 0 receptions, 0 yards
UCLA: 0 rec. 0 yards
Penn State: 0 rec. 0 yards
Air Force: 0 rec. 0 yards
Utah State: 0 rec. 0 yards
UTEP: 0 rec. 0 yards
Hawaii: 0 rec. 0 yards
New Mexico: 0 rec. 0 yards
Colorado State: 1 rec., 6 yards
Wyoming: 0 rec., 0 yards
San Diego State: 8 rec., 163 yards*, 2 TD*
Utah: 2 rec., 40 yards
Iowa: 5 rec., 39 yards
Totals: 11 rec., 209 yards, 2 TD (16 rec., 248 yards)
Florida State: 0 ret., 0 yards
UCLA: 2 ret., 47 yards
Penn State: 3 ret., 46 yards
Air Force: 1 ret., 14 yards
Utah State: 1 ret., 35 yards
UTEP: 3 ret., 71 yards
Hawaii: 0 ret., 0 yards
New Mexico: 0 ret., 0 yards
Colorado State: 0 ret., 0 yards
Wyoming: 0 ret., 0 yards
San Diego State: 0 ret., 0 yards
Utah: 0 ret., 0 yards
Iowa: 0 ret., 0 yards
Totals: 10 ret., 213 yards
All-Purpose Totals: 107 touches, 942 yards (125 touches, 1,042 yards)
Top 10 BYU Freshmen
10. Cody Hoffman, 2010
9. Greg Pitts, 1991
8. Jamal Willis, 1991
7. Luke Staley, 1999
6. David Nixon, 2003
5. Mike Morgan, 1979
4. Austin Collie, 2004
3. Randy Brock, 1991
2. Ronney Jenkins, 1996
1. Harvey Unga, 2007
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