LAWRENCE — Pooka Williams played with gusto Saturday at Iowa State.
And, as the Kansas football running back explained after capping one of the best individual performances of his sophomore season, perhaps the Cyclones deserve a nod for helping ignite Williams’ fire.
Williams finished with 19 carries for 154 yards and two receptions for 52 yards in the Jayhawks' 41-31 defeat at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa, the preseason All-Big 12 selection’s 206 yards from scrimmage his second-best showing of the season. Williams helped kick-start KU’s late push with a 27-yard scoring reception late in the third quarter, the first touchdown of the day for the 26-point underdog Jayhawks.
On that particular play, Williams ran a route up the middle of the field, simply turning on the afterburners to blow by Iowa State’s Braxton Lewis for the easy touchdown.
Williams seemed to take offense at that specific defensive assignment deployed by ISU.
“I just feel like that’s disrespectful,” Williams said in a postgame interview with ESPN. “I mean, I am a running back, (but) I feel that’s disrespectful that they just send linebackers after me. I guess they don’t respect me or something because I feel like I could play slot receiver too, and a linebacker ain’t going to be shaking me as a slot receiver.”
There is one small issue here, however: at 5-foot-11, 190-pounds, Lewis is actually listed a safety.
Forgive Williams for the error — his virtually unmatched speed has a tendency to make everyone look linebacker-slow on Saturdays.
“He’s ‘Pooka Magic.’ He’s unbelievable,” KU senior quarterback Carter Stanley said. “He can make something out of nothing, and (Saturday) our offensive line did a great job of getting him some holes. We can see what he is capable of doing.”
After the game, KU coach Les Miles observed that Williams “was awesome” and had “a helluva day” — “He’d get tied up, you’d look at him and couldn’t really see all that was going on, and then he’d squirt out and get you some yards,” Miles said.
He continued Monday when discussing what he's learned in his first year coaching the dynamic New Orleans native.
“All you need to do is watch Pooka run one run and you realize that he is a special individual,” Miles said. “Everybody says, ‘Well, he’s got a quick first step.’ His change of direction is better than I have ever seen. His strengths are speed and change of direction, and ... I don’t know that he’s just not one of the best backs at those two criteria that I’ve been around.”
The 5-10, 170-pound Williams on Saturday surpassed 2,000 career rushing yards and through just 21 games now sits at 2,546 total yards from scrimmage with 14 touchdowns.
Despite some visible signs of frustration this season — Williams got chippy with an Oklahoma State defender and drew a personal foul penalty near the end of 12-carry, 26-yard showing in the Jayhawks’ 31-13 road defeat on Nov. 16 — the running back has maintained a positive attitude amid both struggles and successes, Miles stated.
“One thing about Pooka Williams: He is a team guy,” Miles said. “When he’s getting the ball and he’s getting yards, it makes a difference. It makes a difference to the team and it makes a difference to him because again, he’s contributing. I expected that would be the case, but I see Pooka as a very unselfish guy.”
Williams helped the then-struggling KU offense flip the field twice Saturday with a pair of 30-plus-yard runs in the second quarter, one going for 48 yards and a subsequent dash netting 33. He suffered an ankle injury after that second scamper, which came on a first-and-10 from the KU 2-yard line, but returned in the third quarter and gave a thumbs up to his coaches after his first tote of that period.
Williams should be good to go for the team’s season finale, a 2:30 p.m. Saturday home clash with No. 11 Baylor (10-1, 7-1) at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. And if for whatever reason the standout again feels “disrespected,” well, watch out.
“I feel like they overlooked us too,” Williams said of the Cyclones. “They felt like they was just going to come in here and blow us out. That’s what I’m thinking. We wasn’t going for it.”