Utah senior running back Joe Williams told me his personal goal for this season is to run for 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns. A 1,500 yard season would put Williams in the company of John White IV who rushed for 1,519 (the school record) in 2011 and Devontae Booker who totaled 1,512 rushing yards in 2014. Booker, White, and Williams all came to Utah via junior colleges, and Utah has a strong tradition of junior college running backs performing well.
Why we think he can
After Booker went down with an injury in 2015, Williams started three games, against UCLA, Colorado, and BYU. In those three games, Williams averaged 133 yards per game. This is a limited sample size of only three games, but he would gain almost 1,600 yards in the 12 game regular season if he managed to gain roughly 133 yards per game. He did this after being the backup for most of the season behind Booker. With an entire offseason to get comfortable in the Utah offense as a starter. Williams has Dennis Erickson as his position coach. The biggest knock on Williams last season was that he had a fumbling problem. It is important to remember that so did Booker, which is why he was not the starter at the beginning of the 2014 season. Erickson helped Booker clean up his fumbling problem and can likely do the same with Williams.
Utah figures to have one of the best offensive lines in the conference in 2016. Couple that with the fact that many of the top front seven players from Pac-12 last season have departed for the NFL, and Williams could be in for a big season. Williams has put on weight and is up to 208 pounds according to head coach Kyle Whittingham. He also posted the fasted 40-yard dash time in offseason condition with a blazing 4.35 (his 40 was hand timed, but a 4.35 40 time is faster than any running back at the 2016 NFL Combine posted). A back with his size and speed is a home run threat on every carry, especially paired with a great offensive line.
Why we think he may not
With Troy McCormick and Zack Moss both impressing coaches during fall camp, Utah will likely divvy up carries more this year compared to with Booker and White getting heavy carry loads. Coaches have admitted they may have beaten up Booker a bit too much with his huge carry load in 2014 and 2015. The Utah offense will also look to be a bit more balanced in 2016 compared to seasons past. Whittingham has said the goal is to be a balanced 50:50 run:pass offense in 2016. Because of these factors, I do not expect Williams to see the 25 to 30 carries a game that Booker and White frequently got (Booker led the Pac-12 in carries per game in 2014 and 2015 and White led the Pac-12 in 2011). 20 carries a game seems more likely for Williams. 20 carries per game is still a big number and would put Williams in the top three or four in the Pac-12 in carries per game. In the three games that Williams started, he averaged 4.69 yards per carry. If we assume his yards per carry is similar to that in 2016 and he gets 20 carries a game, he will gain roughly 1,100 to 1,200 yards in the 12 game regular season. To gain 1,500 yards in 12 games, a running back needs to average 125 yards per game. If a back carries the ball 20 times per game, they need to average 6.25 yards per carry (if bowl game stats are included a back needs 115 yards per game and 5.77 yards per carry). Since the Pac-10 expanded to 12 teams in 2011, there have never been more than four running backs in the conference that have eclipsed 1,500 yards (including bowl game stats), and more often than not, only two or three backs total that much yardage.
A 1,500 yard season would be a great accomplishment for Williams. I believe he can hit that mark for the reasons stated above though it will not be easy. If he does, his 2016 season will be remembered as one of the best in Utah football history.