Javon Williams Jr. is a preseason first team all-conference selection. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)
By Dan Verdun
What’s good news for Southern Illinois is no doubt concerning for Saluki opponents. Javon Williams Jr. is back to full strength.
“I feel like I’m at 100 percent this year. The last two seasons I’ve had ankle surgery to get some bone spurs removed,” Williams Jr. told Prairie State Pigskin earlier this week.
Though SIU players and coaches downplayed it, those ailments did take their toll on the dynamic running back as well as the Saluki offense.
Williams, a native of downstate Centralia, gritted his way through nine games in the Covid-spring Missouri Valley Football Conference 2020 season. He led SIU in rushing and touchdowns while being named first team All-American by Stats FCS. However, injuries knocked Williams out of SIU’s playoff game at Weber State.
A season ago, Williams played in all 13 games and made the All-MVFC second team. He again led the Salukis in rushing and rushing TDs while also racking up nearly 1,000 all-purpose yards.
SIU foes are well aware of the dangers Williams presents. After all, the redshirt junior was voted onto the Missouri Valley preseason first team offense.
Williams is a force whether it’s running, receiving or returning punts. A former high school quarterback, Williams has also been known to throw the ball for the Salukis. Last season, he completed three passes for 67 yards, including a 40-yarder against Youngstown State. In 2020, Williams was 9-of-14 for 237 yards and three touchdowns.
“Javon brings something that you don’t see very often. He’s fast. He’s big. He’s smart. He’s strong as an ox. It’s been nice for the last three years,” offensive lineman Beau Branyan said. “One thing about Javon is once he gets in that backfield, they’re (defense) bringing the house so you have to be ready.
“They know he’s not going to be solo tackled. So they’re bringing both ‘backers. The safeties are coming up. Once he’s in the game that box is going to be full. It’s fun to watch him do his thing. It’s awesome. He can do a bunch of fun stuff with the ball.”
Williams feels he’s only getting better. He’s matured both on the field and on the sideline.
“Not only am I excited about being healthy, I’m super excited about learning the game a bit more. It meant taking a step back and identifying the weaknesses in my game and evolving,” Williams said.
That evolution includes items Williams never would have considered when he burst onto the scene in 2019 finishing third for Jerry Rice Award, which annually goes to the nation’s top FCS freshman.
“(I) really understand the concept of the whole play,” he said. “Knowing how to manipulate the defense even more than I used to. Pass protection. (Things like) what you can tell by the rotations of the safety, the linebackers floating. Just really locking into it and then everything comes easier and slower to where you can go play to your fullest.”
Williams said that his rehabilitation from surgery included “a lot of ankle mobility and calf strengthening (exercises). It was also continuing to stretch out to keep the balance of the body so I’m not wearing on one side more than the other. It’s a repetition of running, more stretching, leg workouts and some yoga too.”
That regiment impressed SIU staff.
“They gave me this nickname ‘The Wolverine’ because for some reason I heal faster than normal people. It (the nickname) definitely got around SIU,” he said.
Primed to go
A fully healed Williams joins a prolific SIU offense that includes record-setting quarterback Nic Baker along with a talented corps led by all-league wide receiver selection Avante Cox.
“Justin Strong and Romer Elliott are two very strong, experienced running backs. The offensive line is solid. There’s Avante and D’Ante’, his twin brother, who’s taken big steps this fall to be able to be on the field and play fast.”
Playoff participants the past two seasons, SIU has been ranked in nearly every Top 10 preseason list published.
“We keep this mentality of never being satisfied,” Williams said. “Rankings are rankings. At the end of the day, we just want to go out there and give it our all and play hard and come together as a team to do that. That’s what we build our culture around now; we’re not really worried about outside things. We continue to mold our team to be a great team.”
Continuing along that line of thought, Williams hasn’t set any individual goals for this season.
“One thing I’ve been training myself to do is to focus more on the team,” he said. “When I focus more on myself, it cripples me. Everybody should trust everybody. Everybody is going to get the ball and do something positive with it, so I’m going that route.
“I just really want to win and display all our talents and all the hard work we’ve put in.”
+Barry Bottino contributed to this story.