The best running back in the 2021 NFL Draft wasn’t Najee Harris. And it wasn’t Travis Etienne. It wasn’t a running back that played at Georgia, or Ohio State, or Alabama, or LSU. It wasn’t a running back that played in the national championship, or was recruited out of one of the hot-beds for high school talent backs like California or Texas. The best running back in last week’s draft was once a three-star high school linebacker-turned-running back from Teachey, North Carolina.
His name is Javonte Williams.
Williams, who goes by “Pookie,” is from a small town in North Carolina called Wallace, who played linebacker through the first three years of high school. He was prolific, averaging 16 tackles per game. Heading into his senior season, at the suggestion of his head coach Kevin Motsinger, Pookie made the switch to running back. In his first game at his new position, Williams rushed for 207 yards in a 50-0 blowout. All-told, Williams rushed for 200+ yards six times his senior season.
His senior season, and his only first full season at the running back position, Williams rushed for 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns in only six games, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. The newly-minted natural running back put on his best performance of his high school career in the 2A state championship game, where he took his first carry of the game 73 yards for a touchdown. He finished with 224 yards, a touchdown, was named the player of the game, and led his high school to their fourth-straight state title.
In attendance for that state championship game was then-UNC head coach Larry Fedora and his staff, who were watching from a box. They set up an official visit with Williams and his parents the next day at the UNC campus, where they offered him a scholarship. It was the only FBS scholarship he received.
During his sophomore season at UNC, Williams took over as a focal point in the offense, in only his third season playing the running back position. He totalled 1,109 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns, forming a dynamic backfield duo with fellow running back Michael Carter. It was this last season, however, where Williams exploded onto the scene. With 1,445 scrimmage yards on 7.3 yards per carry and a whopping 22 touchdowns, the junior running back has done nothing but continue to improve year-over-year. He compiled these stats on only 157 carries, compared to the 251 carries of Alabama’s Harris and 279 carries of Iowa State sophomore Breece Hall — the only two running backs in the country with more scrimmage touchdowns than Williams.
Williams is truly physically gifted as a running back, and breaks through tackles with ease. According to PFF, he led the country in broken tackles last year with 75, and broke the PFF record for broken tackles per attempt at 0.48. Those numbers support what you see on film — he is seemingly never fazed, let alone tackled, by the first defender that meets him.
After watching Harris and Etienne get selected in the first round of the NFL Draft last Thursday night, it was not long into the second round before Williams heard his name called. The Denver Broncos traded up from 40 to 35 to secure the star running back, making him the third running back selected.
The Denver backfield, with 28-year-old veteran Melvin Gordon in the mix, will soon belong to Williams. While the two might split the workload for most of this season, make no mistake — Javonte Williams is a star, and will cement himself before long as one of the best running backs in the NFL.