LAWRENCE — David Beaty had a hunch, but the fourth-year Kansas football coach couldn’t be certain he had the answer to one of the program’s most burning offseason questions just yet.
Was true freshman running back and incoming four-star recruit Pooka Williams as good as advertised?
“As you go through fall camp and you see the guy touch the ball seven or eight times and he’s running to the end zone on three-quarters of those, you’re like, ‘Man, this guy’s got something to him, we think,’ ” Beaty recalled Monday on the Big 12 football coaches teleconference. “It’s not until you put him on the field that you realize how good he is.”
The equation took a week longer to solve than Beaty and many Jayhawk fans would have liked, but when the answer finally came Saturday, it was delivered with an exclamation point.
Williams shined in his collegiate debut, rushing 14 times for 125 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Jayhawks’ 31-7 rout at Central Michigan in Mount Pleasant, Mich. His 20- and 41-yard scoring scampers in the third quarter turned a one-score game into a blowout and delivered the program its first true road victory since 2009. It also earned Williams the distinction as the Big 12 Conference’s newcomer of the week Monday, the program’s first ever recipient of that honor.
It took just one game for the hype that followed the 5-foot-10, 170-pound stick of dynamite to Lawrence to be validated.
“We knew he was really good, but you know, you never really know how they’re going to react when they get to school,” Beaty said. “There’s this love for the game that you have to have to be able to play at a young age, and that love allows you to have some maturity about you and it allows you to be around the game more and go through some of the harder things, like really being in the fieldhouse a lot, and that’s not normal for a lot of kids, but he’s had that.
“He’s a gym rat, he’s always around, he’s always here and he always has a legitimate smile on his face, not a forced smile. He loves being here and he loves this game.”
A February 2017 oral commit to KU, Williams stuck with the Jayhawks (1-1) and joined fellow Louisiana native and four-star recruit Corione Harris as coups in the team’s Class of 2018 signing haul. Through a standout preseason and a successful debut, he already has his veteran teammates’ attention.
“He’s unreal. He really is,” said senior linebacker Joe Dineen. “... (Y)ou watch him run and you’re like, ‘There’s no way he’s a true freshman.’ We’ve got three or four more years with him here. He’s insane. He really is. So good.”
Senior quarterback Peyton Bender concurred.
“You saw Pooka Williams is a game-changer when he’s in there at tailback,” Bender said. “You know, it’s just nice to be able to hand the ball off to a guy and let him do the work, and you saw it (Saturday). He’s just an explosive back. He can do it all.”
Williams’ touchdown dashes were set up by downfield blocks from teammates — “The big runs always, always have scoring blocks by receivers down the field,” Beaty said — but without the freshman’s explosive burst and juking ability, the plays likely wouldn’t have gone for touchdowns.
“Those are two plays you don’t get to take out and say, ‘Ah, that wasn’t no big deal,’ because it was,” Beaty said Saturday. “When you’ve got a guy that’s that explosive, that can do the things he can do, that can change games. A single guy can make a difference on a team a lot of times, right?
“I don’t know that he can take you single-handedly to new heights all by himself, but I think he can certainly get it started and make guys around him better.”
After missing the Jayhawks’ season opener with what the team only classified as a nondisciplinary matter, Williams was made available to Beaty “late, late” Friday. He should have more time to prepare this week, as Beaty said Monday that Williams is “healthy and ready,” and the team expects him to be all systems go for KU’s 11 a.m. Saturday home contest against Rutgers (1-1).
As for the fun-sized freshman’s workload, Beaty said the program is mindful of that, too.
“We obviously want to make sure we’re careful with him,” Beaty said. “Our plan will adjust accordingly to how mature he is and how much he’s able to handle. So far he’s shown he can handle quite a bit.”
One final question for Beaty, who was asked if Williams’ talent compares to any other player he’s coached or been around before.
The KU coach indicated he wasn’t quite ready to put that cart before the horse, but he appears optimistic.
“I don’t know, he’s a freshman right now and I hate to say too much about (who he compares to) right now,” Beaty said. “But I do know this: He keeps doing what he’s doing, I look for him to have a terrific career here, and he can only help us moving forward.”
DINEEN HONORED, TOO — Fresh off a 14-tackle performance against the Chippewas, Dineen was named the Big 12 defensive player of the week Monday.
Dineen had one of the Jayhawks’ four interceptions Saturday.
“Seeing Joe get his first career interception, after all he’s done here, that was actually pretty athletic looking. He’s going to start telling me he’s a real athlete,” Beaty joked. “But he did a nice job adjusting on the ball.”
BAYLOR KICKOFF SET — The Jayhawks’ conference opener at Baylor will kick off at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 22 and air on FS1, the Big 12 announced Monday.
The Bears (2-0) routed the Jayhawks 38-9 in last season’s meeting in Lawrence.