Deonte Willaims’ mom wanted her son to stay close to her Sacramento home.
Is anything closer than playing for an assistant college football coach who literally grew up a block away?
Cal Poly defensive line coach Jamar Cain might not tutor the Mustangs’ running backs, but the Sacramento native hits the recruiting trail of his old turf pretty hard, and when Williams was deciding where to transfer for the 2011 season, the two connected instantly.
“We went to the same high school,” said Cain, who played defensive line at Sacramento City College before finishing his playing career at New Mexico State. “We had a lot of ties, ran in the same neighborhood, went to the same place to get our hair cut, a lot of interesting things. So, once we met, it just clicked.”
“He’s such a great kid. My wife loves him. My kids love him. They’ve got their Deonte jerseys, and he’s part of our family now. He’s like a little son to me.”
Williams, a former standout running back at Northern Arizona and Sierra College, had several other ties to San Luis Obispo, too. Before he went on to play his junior season at Sacramento Valley High, Cain’s old school, and his senior year at Elk Grove’s Pleasant Grove, Williams met Mustangs cornerback Asa Jackson.
Williams and Jackson, now playing for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, played on the same Pop Warner team.
Cornerback Nico Molino was a teammate of Williams in 2008 before he transferred to Cal Poly from Northern Arizona. Junior college transfer receiver Brandon Michalkiwicz played with Williams at Sierra in 2009.
A failed attempt to transfer to San Diego State forced Williams to sit out the 2010 season, but when it came time to pick another home, the choice came down to Cal Poly and Montana State. And despite the Bobcats’ rising reputation as a nationally ranked program, Williams chose the Mustangs.
“It was a little colder up there. It was snowing when I went on my visit,” said Williams. “I didn’t know if I wanted to spend my next two years up there.
“The biggest draw was my mom didn’t want me to go out of California.”
In his senior season, the decision is paying big dividends.
Through three games, Williams has rushed for 484 yards and four touchdowns, scoring another touchdown through the air. He’s already beat his rushing totals from all of last season and is more than halfway to the 960 rushing yards he had as a freshman with Northern Arizona in 2009, when the Big Sky Conference selected him its Newcomer of the Year.
He’s had more than 100 yards in each of the Mustangs’ first three games, helping Cal Poly (3-0) and its triple-option offense rank third in the FCS with 328 rushing yards per game entering Saturday’s game at North Dakota (3-1).
Williams had 187 yards on 19 carries in a 24-22 upset of Wyoming two weeks ago and upped that career high with 188 yards and three touchdowns on 20 attempts in the following week’s 28-20 victory over rival UC Davis.
With 161.3 rushing yards per game, Williams also ranks third in the FCS in rushing and is on pace to run for 1,774 yards through the regular season. James Noble holds the program’s all-time single-season rushing mark with 1,578 yards in 2005, a season that also included two playoff games.
Williams’ production has been uncharacteristic for an offense that is designed to spread the ball if a defense chooses to take away certain options. So far, teams have been allowing Williams opportunities to run for more than 8 yards per carry rather than let quarterback Andre Broadous gash them on option keepers.
If Williams and Cal Poly keep winning, opponents could start forcing other options to beat them.
“Andre’s definitely a threat himself,” Williams said. “He’s already established himself at this level, so the defense definitely has to respect that, and as they key on him, it leaves more open for me to just do my thing.
“And if they want to key on me, we have other weapons that can get the job done. As long as we get the win, I’m happy either way.”
Williams said he was also happy last season, but he did have to accept a reduced role compared to his previous collegiate stops.
After his breakout year at Northern Arizona, Williams ran for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns at Sierra. In his first season at Cal Poly, Williams totaled only 385 yards and five touchdowns as senior fullback Jake Romanelli, senior slotback Mark Rodgers and Broadous received the bulk of the carries.
“It was frustrating just based on having already established myself in college,” Williams said. “So, coming here to a new team, it was definitely a shock for me, but I look back at it now, and I’m glad I went through it.”
Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said coaches spent time in the offseason tweaking the offense to fit its personnel. The Mustangs are running more shotgun formations to suit Broadous’ strengths. There have also been changes to accommodate Williams.
“Last year, he probably had to question some of his decision-making process from an individual statistic standpoint,” Walsh said, “but I think this year we told him to stay with it, that there was going to be a little bit more of a growth offensively, and that he was a big part of the growth.
“Right now, I think it’s paid off for him to be here, and it’s paid off for Cal Poly for him to be here. Long term, I think it’s the best decision he’s ever made.”
FCS Rushing leaders
Car Yds Avg Yds PG
Zach Zenner, South Dakota St. 107 895 8.4 223.8
Shakir Bell, Ind St 94 664 7.1 166.0
Deonte Williams, Cal Poly 60 484 8.1 161.3
Treavor Scales, Harvard 37 309 8.4 154.5
Carlton Koonce, Fordham 94 608 6.5 152.0
Miguel Maysonet, St. Brook 71 580 8.2 145.0
Cal Poly single-season rushing leaders
Player Year Carries Yards
James Noble 2005 223 1,578
Craig Young 1999 275 1,350
Antonio Warren 1997 191 1,151
Antonio Warren 1995 221 1,111
Craig Young 1997 166 1,038
Jake Romanelli 2011 226 1,015
James Noble 2006 196 1,009
Deonte Williams (projected) 2012 220 1,774