UL is a home run for Jalen Williams after time as Boston Red Sox farmhand, LSU football walk-on
Coming from Westminster Christian Academy, chasing the dream was the initial inclination.
Selected by Boston in the 16th round of the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft, Jalen Williams signed with the Red Sox organization straight out of high school.
Now the starting slot receiver for the Ragin’ Cajuns, who are 3-1 heading into Friday night’s CBS Sports Network-televised game against UAB in Birmingham, the redshirt senior from Opelousas spent three summers pitching in the minors – all at the Rookie League level – before deciding enough was enough.
As he laid his head to rest each night, Williams closed his eyes, opened his ears and heard a different sport calling his name.
“I missed football,” Williams said, “and I just wanted to pursue that.
“That’s really what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to go after something that my heart wasn’t really into.”
It wasn’t so much the endless miles of inevitable bus trips that shooed Williams away, or waiting for a call that might never come.
Neither was it knowing that for many years upon spent in the minor frequently lead down a road to nowhere.
“It was just the passion part of football,” Williams said.
“If I love something and want to do it, it doesn’t matter what circumstances or obstacles come with it. I’m down for it, if that’s what I want to so.
“Passion for football just overtook (baseball),” he added, “and here I am.”
With a detour, to LSU.
The year was 2016.
But after spending one season as a walk-on redshirt with the Tigers’ scout team, Williams’ path took another turn.
He made his way to UL and never looked back.
“It wasn’t that long of a stay,” Williams said of his days in Baton Rouge, “and (joining the Cajuns) kind of washed everything away – because it felt like more of a home over here.”
Now he sees the baseball career, too, like a lifetime in the rearview mirror.
“I think about it every once in a while, and it’s like, ‘Wow, it was this many years ago,’ ” Williams said. “It hits me sometimes, but I don’t really worry about it too much. I’m moving forward.”
'We like Jalen'
Williams is so old teammates call him “Old Man.” They joke about him being in his 30s.
He’s not, of course.
But he is 25, and when Cajuns coach Billy Napier looks at Williams he see’s a young man who’s grown.
“I think the big thing for Jalen is that last year was his first significant year with playing time at receiver in particular,” Napier said back in August, “and I think he learned a lot and developed some confidence, in particular at the end of the year.
“He made some critical plays in some games, made some great plays in the bowl game.”
Williams had just five grabs for 56 yards, three of them late in the year against South Alabama, while playing mostly on special teams in 2018.
But he started two of the 13 games for 11-3 UL in 2019, finishing with 21 catches for 279 yards including a touchdown in a win at Coastal Carolina.
He had three receptions against Appalachian State in the Sun Belt Conference championship game and three more in UL’s LendingTree Bowl win over Miami (Ohio) in Mobile.
“We like Jalen,” Napier said. “He’s a leader.
“He’s had some issues staying healthy in the past. That continues to be very, very important for him, is to continue to take care of his body and have the discipline to get the necessary sleep and rest.”
Transitioning from baseball to football wasn’t easy physically.
“Being in ‘baseball shape’ is a completely different shape,” said Williams, who sat out in 2017 after transferring to UL. “So I had to mold my body into a different shape.”
Being better physically, though, wasn’t the only thing Williams focused on during the offseason.
“I basically set my mind to kind of become more of a receiver and just a better all-around player for the team,” he said. “So I got in my playbook more. I started watching more film, studying the defenses, getting with (quarterback) Levi (Lewis) and having side talks with him about everything.
“Me and him talk just about all the time. We’re on the same locker block. Even on the practice field after plays we go on the sideline, we communicate what we did wrong, how we can do better.”
When preseason camp rolled around, Williams noticed the difference.
“If you put on film of me from last year,” he said, “I’ll be better in just about every area.”
In the slot
When camp started, Napier had Williams pegged as the replacement for last season’s top receiver – Ja’Marcus Bradley, now on the Cleveland Browns’ NFL practice squad – at the featured X spot.
With the emergence of freshmen Dontae Fleming and Errol Rogers Jr., however, Williams moved to the slot to fill the void created because the former starter there, Bam Jackson, was, like Bradley, a senior last season.
“We made that decision probably two-thirds of the way into training camp,” Napier said last week, “so there’s been some newness … for him and I think he’s getting more comfortable.”
The comfort level showed in UL’s 30-27 loss to Coastal Carolina last Wednesday night, when the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Williams had a career-high and team-high four catches for 89 yards.
One was a 12-yard touchdown throw from Lewis in the opening quarter. Another was a 41-yarder.
“(He’s) certainly been a very reliable player as of late,” Napier said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Jalen. He’s tough. He’s physical. He brings it every day. He’s a consistent, dependable player that takes great pride in his role.
“So I think his production is a direct reflection of how he prepares and works day-in and day-out.”
Williams – who has nine catches for 152 yards this season, roughly half of his 2019 production just four games in – embraces the toughness part.
“I try to separate myself from any other wide receivers who may not have that mastered, may not be that physical, just trying to bring something to the table that everybody may not have,” he said.
Napier prefers a bigger player in the slot who can handle the perimeter blocking required of the position but also can catch the ball over the middle.
The size, he believes, creates mismatches and allows matchups to be more easily won.
“In general, that guy’s a very important piece of the puzzle," he said. “Bam (Jackson) was really good at it and certainly Jalen continues to get better, and he’s been steady here of late.”
Much more mature
In Williams’ mind, any production on the football field is better late than never.
He was 4-2 with a career 3.17 ERA over 25 games including six starts during his three years with Boston’s Gulf Coast League club.
In his final season, 2015, he was 3-1 with two saves and a 2.65 over a career-high 12 games including three starts.
But the heart yearned for football, and the Red Sox didn’t try to talk him out of listening to it.
So he did, giving up a career he doesn’t mind having chased.
“The experience, it matured me a lot,” Williams said, his thick voice echoing every bit of 25 years. “So I’ve just been maturing even after that. Every year, I try to become more mature.”
Knowing what wasn’t meant to be. But knowing too what was.