Williams overcomes injuries, climbs ECU depth chart

Published 7:21 pm Tuesday, June 13, 2017

GREENVILLE — Washington’s loss to Havelock on Nov. 16, 2012 was the last time Jimmy Williams played football in the Pam Pack navy and white. It wasn’t the last time he’d play, though. He walked on to the football team he grew up watching, and he methodically climbed the Pirates’ depth chart.

Williams’ redshirt didn’t stay on long during his freshman campaign. His rookie year was short, though, as he only appeared in games against North Carolina and Middle Tennessee before suffering a season-ending injury to his left foot.

The shifty receiver returned to the lineup the following season. Williams was helpful as ECU grabbed national headlines to start the 2014 season. He nabbed a 35-yard pass from Shane Carden on the second play of ECU’s Sept. 13, 2014 game at 17th-ranked Virginia Tech. Bryce Williams capped off that seven-play drive with a touchdown catch, and the Pirates went on to upend the Hokies, 28-21, in Blacksburg, Virginia.

A week later on Sept. 20, 2014, Williams had four catches for 37 yards in one of ECU’s most treasured wins in recent memory — a 70-41 shellacking of No. 25 North Carolina in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Former Washington coach Sport Sawyer and then-defensive coordinator Jon Blank knew that Williams had what it took to be a difference maker on a team stacked with receiving talent.

“With a walk-on opportunity, if he stayed healthy, he would prove to the coaches that he’s a scholarship-worthy player,” Blank said. “We saw that when he was on the field for us. As a defensive coordinator trying to defend him in practice, he drove me nuts.”

Ruffin McNeill — ECU’s head coach at the time and the man that played a large role in bringing Williams aboard — knew that, too.

“Saw him in a Pam Pack uniform over there at Washington. You watch him and he’s just athletic,” McNeill said. “… We saw Jimmy running the football and running the team just like a lot of the players that were playing receiver for us. … Just like Justin Hardy and like Bryce (Williams). I think Zay only had one scholarship, as well. You just got to find them.”

It was three days after that historic win over UNC that a battle-scared Williams, donning a full neck brace, was awarded a scholarship from McNeill and his staff. McNeill called him in front of the team after giving his pre-practice speech. His teammates celebrated the news.

Read more: Former WHS QB earns scholarship

“It was special,” McNeill said. “It was preplanned. We didn’t know he was going to get hurt and banged up, but we knew we would give it to him because he earned it. It was an earned, not given, ethos. That’s the ethos that we lived by. When we gave Jimmy the scholarship, he earned it by carrying himself off the field and carrying himself on the field.”

Injuries slowed Williams down again in 2015. Justin Hardy had graduated, leaving Williams and Zay Jones as two of ECU’s top returning receivers. He only played in seven games that season, totaling 137 yards and two touchdowns on 15 catches.

Jimmy Williams gets the ball and rips off a run against Central Florida last season. Dating back to his days playing for Washington, Williams has always loved having the ball in his hands.

Williams stayed healthy all of last season and finally put together the kind of year that the coaching staff knew he was capable of when they put him on scholarship. His 45 catches for 818 yards ranked second behind Jones, who has since graduated and was a second-round selection by the Buffalo Bills in the NFL Draft.

Those performances included three games where he surpassed the century mark. The most impressive was that aforementioned blowout by Virginia Tech in which the Washington native racked up 175 yards and two touchdowns on just three catches.

“I wanted to touch the ball more. That’s a strong part of my game: getting the ball early, getting out in space and making guys miss,” Williams said. “It’s something that I’ve always loved to do. Just touch the ball and go. I feel like it’s helping me out with plays down the field. You’ve got to guard me short. You’ve got to guard me long.”

Washington football fans knew. McNeill and his staff knew. It was the ECU faithful that was getting a glimpse of what a healthy Williams is capable of.

This story is part two of a three-part feature on former Washington football player and East Carolina standout Jimmy Williams.