LAWRENCE — Reserved by nature, Pooka Williams nevertheless felt it necessary to deliver an important message to a teammate and friend.
It was early July, and the Kansas football sophomore running back’s seven-month exile from the program had officially ended. Williams had been reintegrated into the team’s day-to-day operations, and while a one-game suspension still loomed, he wanted to make something clear to one of the Jayhawks’ most respected locker room leaders.
“When he first got back, he called me over. I didn’t see him at first. He was sitting in his locker,” recalled senior quarterback Carter Stanley. “He called me over and I gave him a big hug and stuff. He just, you know, was ready to flush it. I know he had been working on his own at that point. He just said he was thankful and glad to be back.
“He didn’t say anything to the team, but that’s just kind of like, he’s kind of shy, and honestly I didn’t really expect anything like that. But no, just him talking to me, and I know he talked to a lot of the other guys individually, that meant a lot to us. But again, he was just ready to flush the situation and move on from it.”
Williams’ first opportunity at an on-field statement is on the horizon.
The preseason All-Big 12 selection, who was arrested in December and subsequently charged with domestic battery stemming from an incident with a female KU student with whom he had been romantically involved, will return to action at 6 p.m. Saturday for the Jayhawks’ contest against Coastal Carolina at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.
The Jayhawks (1-0) expect Williams to be all systems go against the Chanticleers (0-1), coach Les Miles said Monday.
“I can tell you that we’ve determined he’s going to play and play early and play late,” Miles said. “As it fits the scheme and as he fits what we’re doing, he’ll play without limitation.”
Williams was suspended for the team’s season opener, a 24-17 victory over FCS-level opponent Indiana State, but remained on the roster in a decision announced after Williams and the Douglas County District Attorney’s office reached terms of a diversion agreement that would eventually drop the domestic battery charge. Miles has said that while the one-game punishment levied to Williams was made by athletic director Jeff Long and other administrators, it was a decision he stands by.
“I think he’s a very strong player,” Miles said of Williams, who amassed 1,125 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 7 yards per carry as a true freshman. “We’ll have to integrate him yet again, and yet I suspect he’ll give us some ‘Pooka plays.’ We’re looking forward to having him back, I can tell you that. He’s enjoyed by his teammates. ... We’ll enjoy him in the huddle, we’ll enjoy him eating — we’ll enjoy that man.”
Williams, who didn’t speak to the media last season under a policy implemented by former coach David Beaty, hasn’t discussed his offseason arrest and won’t be made available until after his return Saturday. The 5-foot-10, 170-pounder out of New Orleans also hasn’t addressed his teammates in a group setting, though Miles has nudged him in that direction.
“I suggested that, and he got scared,” Miles said. “Yeah, yeah, I suggested that he do it, and he's going to, just not when I suggested.”
While Williams has spoken to individual teammates, Stanley said the former four-star recruit has mostly kept his nose to the grindstone.
“It hasn’t been too long since he’s been back, but he’s just been pretty quiet. He’s been quiet for really the most part since he’s been here,” Stanley said. “He seems quiet, but he comes to work every day. He’s doing whatever he can to make this team better.”
Williams did just that last season, a campaign that also included 289 yards and a pair of scores receiving and one touchdown pass thrown on a trick play.
“He can score any play,” said senior left tackle and team captain Hakeem Adeniji. “A play can break down and he’s ... not going to go down easy. He’s not easy to tackle. He’s explosive. He’s a home-run hitter, so I mean, to have that in any offense, it keeps a defense on their heels as well. It opens up the whole game even more than just those big plays."
Williams watched last weekend’s opener from the stands, where he shouted words of encouragement to teammates in the down-to-the-wire affair. Senior running back Khalil Herbert remembers Williams at one point commanding him to find the end zone.
Williams, Herbert said, can reach even greater heights than what he accomplished as a freshman.
“Yeah, he’s got some more stuff up his sleeve,” Herbert said. “I think he’ll show y’all.”
“I mean, it seems like he does something new every day that kind of impresses us, to be honest,” Stanley said. “... He’s just pretty routine at making incredible plays at this point.”