Two years ago, when Javonte Williams joined the UNC football team as a three-star running back recruit from Wallace-Rose Hill High School in eastern North Carolina, his style of play was simple: “get the ball and run.”
His self-professed lack of knowledge may have contributed to the relatively few touches he had in his first campaign as a Tar Heel. It didn't help that he also had to compete with two veteran backs, Michael Carter and Antonio Williams, for carries. Sometimes, Williams said, seeing how those two experienced players communicated with coaches and seamlessly understood plays shattered his confidence and made him doubt himself.
While there were flashes of brilliance, like a November 2018 matchup with Western Carolina where Williams recorded 131 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns, there was still something holding him back.
But everything changed in his sophomore season.
Almost without warning, Williams exploded into form, notching 1,109 all-purpose yards, nearly quadrupling the numbers from his first-year campaign. Nearly every major stat followed suit and shot up as well: 43 carries to 166, 224 rushing yards to 933, 20.4 yards a game to 71.8.
According to Pro Football Focus, his 89.8 offensive grade was fifth among Power 5 running backs. He was even named to the 2020 watch list for the Doak Walker Award, given to the top running back in college football.
Per running backs coach Robert Gillespie, growing confidence was one of the keys for turning Williams from a little-used first-year into one of the most highly rated and exciting tailbacks in the ACC.
“If you look at his freshman year, here was a kid kind of trying to feel his way around,” Gillespie said. “Sophomore year, he gained a lot of confidence. The sky’s the limit for what he can do his junior year, because I think he understands that he fits what we do offensively. His teammates respect him, and I think he knows he’s good enough to dominate on this level.”
For Gillespie, one moment changed it all. During the fourth quarter of UNC’s 2019 season-opening win versus South Carolina, Williams caught a swing pass, cut left past a block and found himself running right into three Gamecocks.
Rather than try to slip past, he dropped his left shoulder and charged into the fray, slamming a safety to the ground and nearly taking down another defender as he fell forward. While it was a great play — the 10-yard gain came on UNC’s go-ahead touchdown drive — Gillespie took special note of what happened in the moments after it ended.
“Javonte is a quiet guy, and he’s never really expressed himself a lot — but when he got up, he kind of flexed at the sideline,” Gillespie said. “The sideline went crazy. I remember that moment being on the sideline, and in my mind, I said, ‘He’s ready.’”
Williams knows he's typically reserved on the field, but when he reflected on that moment, he said a feeling just overwhelmed him in that instant. More than anything, he was glad the confidence he felt in that moment helped to propel the team to a victory, expressing appreciation to his teammates for encouraging him to keep playing.
“That was a moment where I really felt I belonged at the ACC level, for sure,” Williams said. “Really, I think it’s just the confidence. When I see my teammates celebrate with me and they’re just behind me, that just gives me a whole other level of confidence. Like with the team and everybody behind me, we’re all good. That’s what really helps me throughout the season.”
‘Put it all together in one day’
Williams has shown before that he can carry a team’s run game — he rushed for over 2,000 yards in his senior year of high school — but he’s also flourished as part of a system where he is half of a thunder-and-lightning duo with the senior Carter. While Williams is often seen as a short yardage power back at 5-foot-10 and 220 pounds, with Carter being more of an elusive speedster, Williams said he is eager to show that he is more than that.
“The main thing I'm working on is agility and catching the ball. Just running routes with (Sam Howell) and stuff like that,” Williams said.
Though he is still striving to improve, Williams proved last year how effective he can be at catching passes out of the backfield. Carter had 21 receptions last year compared to Williams’ 17, but Williams was able to take those for a combined 176 yards, whereas Carter only managed 154.
“Just trying to catch as many passes as I can, because as (coach Phil Longo) said, that's going to be an even bigger part of the offense this year, catching the ball out of the backfield,” Williams said. “Other than that, it's just really agility and speed. I feel like you can't get too fast, so we're just working on speed at all times.”
By virtue of training and playing together, Williams and Carter have formed a unique bond. Part of it is that they never compliment each other during practice, but instead, constantly critique each other’s performances. Carter’s newest observation for Williams — ’Vonte, as he calls him — is that he has to “stay low” to break through tackles more easily. Carter said that, despite his reputation as an offensive bowling ball, he knows how deep Williams’ game really is.
“A lot of his recognition comes from the fact that he's powerful on contact,” Carter said. “He's a strong runner. He's a short yardage back and things like that. But he's got great hands. He can catch the ball down the field. He can run from the slot. He can run from the backfield in the pass game. He's an excellent blocker.
"And for him, it's just being able to complete his game and put it all together in one day.”
‘We have to be able to back it up’
With Williams being placed on the 2020 Doak Walker Award watch list, and UNC being ranked No. 17 in the preseason top 25 rankings, it’s safe to say that this is the most anticipated year of Williams’ Tar Heel career so far. Williams, however, chose to lean into the hype and said that, between improving their run game and catching more passes out of the backfield, he’s excited to show off how dynamic the offense can be this year.
“We've got a lot of formations that look exactly the same, but can run 10 or 15 different plays,” Williams said. “So I feel like with us catching the ball in the backfield, it's gonna be a lot harder for teams to prepare. They know that it's not just gonna be a run when I come in the game or a pass when Mike comes in the game, but they have to prepare for more things, so I feel like it's gonna make it a lot harder.”
When asked if he had any personal goals for the season, Williams stopped and thought for a moment, and then gave an answer he probably wouldn’t have given in 2018, when he was just a true first-year used to getting the ball and running. Though it was similarly simple, the answer exuded the confidence of an experienced running back who has faith that he and his teammates will make a splash this season.
“I haven't really thought about it,” Williams said. “I'm just trying to win a national championship, for real.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.