Alabama football’s Jameson Williams and the art of the little league jet sweep

Bennett Durando
The Tuscaloosa News

INDIANAPOLIS — A flash of neon green on the opposite side of the field signaled to Arvell Ferguson that his job was done.

He had wondered to himself moments earlier as coach Cory Patterson called the play, “How is he going to get the handoff with a cast?” Now Ferguson could only shake his head at his naivete: Of course all Jameson Williams needed was one arm and two legs.

Ferguson hated blocking for Williams. The Alabama receiver is a lanky 6-foot-2 now, but he was one of the shortest kids on his little league team. “When I tell you he was a twig, I mean he could get picked up by a gust of wind,” Ferguson said. “He didn’t want to take any hits, so when he would catch a pass or get a handoff, he would run side to side to side of the field. It’s like he’s playing tag, and nobody can catch him.” 

That included Williams’ own offensive linemen, who feared penalties from all the east-to-west movement. But that day, as the streak of a neon cast soared by Ferguson’s periphery, he was reminded that “you didn’t really have to do anything. Just sit back and watch the show.”

Williams was gone for a touchdown. Unbothered by a broken arm, he had made another victim of his coveted jet sweep.

When Alabama faces Georgia in the College Football Playoff championship Monday (7 p.m. CT, ESPN), Williams will be Georgia’s focus. His 1,507-yard breakout junior season has turned him into a consensus top-20 draft pick. And with Alabama (13-1) missing its No. 2 receiver, Williams’ presence becomes even more meaningful.

One year ago, he was a depth option for Ohio State, catching one pass in a national championship loss to Alabama. During college recruitment, Williams and his dad, James, often had heated arguments about the best choice for his future. James Williams thought Alabama was a better fit because of its recent receiver history. In one year, Jameson Williams has become a part of that lineage.

“I haven’t seen him more locked into the game plan like this since he played for his little league coach,” James Williams said. 

That was Patterson, now the running backs coach at Illinois. Patterson and Williams’ little league teammates share a common thread in their memories of the speedster, and it all circulates around that game plan.

“He will jet sweep you to death,” Patterson said.

The jet sweep was the foundation that built Williams’ passion for football. It was his identity as a youth running back and receiver — darn near an obsession. But it worked. It put his track skills to use.

“I’d take him out of the backfield, motion him into the slot and run jet sweep,” Patterson said. “If you don’t touch him before he gets out of the tackle box, go ahead and just wave at him.”

Patterson often implored a high school coaching friend to come watch his youth team play. It was loaded with future talent, he insisted. Sterling Finney finally decided to check out a game. He hadn’t met Williams before. 

All he remembers is a jet sweep.

It was a third-and-long near midfield, but Patterson called it anyway. Williams “hit the corner so fast,” Finney remembers, that the kid started waving at his parents in the end zone 40 yards away. 

Finney called another coaching friend immediately, extending an invite to watch Williams together next time. “He’s the next Reggie Bush.”

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After Williams broke his arm, he wasn’t always able to play through it. Antsy to be involved, he called a few plays for the offense during a playoff game. Patterson eventually had to wrestle back the reins after Williams kept calling jet sweeps for his teammates.

“It was like, ‘Man, that’s not their favorite play,’” Ferguson laughed. “‘That’s your favorite play.’”

Alabama football receiver Jameson Williams (No. 3, back row) in a little league team picture with coach Cory Patterson (back right).

Ferguson and another teammate, Isaiah Williams, lived nearby and witnessed the origin of Williams’ speed. It was no accident. Jameson’s parents both ran track. They trained their three kids with rigorous early-morning workouts. Sleeping over? “If you’re here, we working,” James Williams would tell his son’s friends. Sprinting drills were the family hobby.

Williams didn’t always know what to do with that speed, other than show it off. Use every inch of field width. Nobody could keep up. He was short and shifty, with a need to prove himself. The jet sweep was the perfect outlet.

“This year with him being such a big name and everybody saying, ‘He has to go against this guy, or this guy,’ I think: Ever since he was a little kid, people tried to say the next kid is faster,” Ferguson said. “We’ve always had speedsters on our team, and when we got a new one, the question was, ‘Is he faster than Jameson? Have we finally got one that’s faster than Jameson?’ It started his fire. When you put them on the field, Jameson somehow out-runs him.”

Patterson’s favorite Jameson Williams memory was on a rainy day. The team was playing up. Older, bigger linemen. Williams took a handoff and was quickly smothered by a big defender. Patterson lost sight of Williams from the sideline. Then suddenly, he “just squirts out of the pack.” 

The lasting image for Patterson is as striking as the neon cast still in Ferguson’s brain. This time, it was mud: “Mud up to your calves, and you just see this kid just kick every piece of mud up off the field.” The constant? Both plays, a touchdown. Both plays, everyone left behind by Williams and his jet sweep speed.