There was great excitement in the stands whenever the football team had the ball this fall.
That’s because fans knew senior running back Josh Williams was a threat to score a touchdown on any given play.
Williams did that frequently in producing the greatest season ever for a Downers South running back. The 5-foot-9, 175-pounder rushed 293 times for 2,338 yards and 33 touchdowns and added 185 yards and three more touchdowns receiving in leading the Mustangs to the Class 8A state quarterfinals and their first 10-win season since 2002.
Williams, a three-year starter, was a two-time West Suburban Conference Gold Division Player of the Year, an IHSFCA Class 8A All-State selection and a finalist for the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year award. He holds single-season and career school records for rushing yards and touchdowns.
For his efforts, Williams is Patch’s 2011 Downers Grove/Woodridge High School Athlete of the Year.
“He’s the most prolific runner we’ve had in school history,” Downers Grove South Coach John Belskis said. “We knew he had that kind of ability. It was just a question of could he stay healthy. The problem his first two years was he got injured and missed nine of our 18 [regular season] games.”
Williams, who succeeded his brother, Scottie, as South’s featured running back in 2009, was hampered by sprained ankles his sophomore and junior seasons. Even so, he was able to rush for over 1,200 yards and 21 touchdowns as a junior.
Finally healthy after an off-season weight-lifting regimen, Williams wasted no time in showcasing his talents and new-found durability, toting the rock 37 times for a career-high 336 yards and three touchdowns in a season-opening 28-7 .
Williams never slowed down and saved some of his best performances for the fans at Downers South home games. He scored six touchdowns – four rushing and two receiving – and had 29 carries for 221 yards and two scores in a 24-14 two weeks later.
That was followed by another six-touchdown performance – the third of his career – , before he returned home for two more outstanding performances (31 carries, 253 yards, 3 TDs) and . The Mustangs won those games by scores of 38-9 and 49-6.
“I kind of knew what I was capable of and it was a matter of staying healthy,” Williams said. “My offensive line was amazing and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to play with.
“It was such a joy being able to play with the boys this year. We worked hard together and we enjoyed it as a team. We were a family.”
Such talk was no mere hyperbole. Not a game went by where Williams did not credit his teammates in post-game interviews. Though comfortable in his inevitable role as one of the team’s spokesman, Williams never sought the spotlight and was unfailingly humble.
“[That humility] was genuine,” Belskis said. “It’s a lot like [the Bears with] Devin Hester. He raised the level of everyone around him. I think [his teammates] play harder for him.
"We didn’t have any Division I lineman but they played at a different level because of him. They knew that any given play he could take it to the house and he fully understood that he wouldn’t have had that success without the blocking from the linemen and the receivers.”
One of the things Belskis liked most about Williams was his willingness to contribute in multiple ways, especially blocking and running fakes to open up opportunities for other runners and the passing game. Despite his relatively small stature, Williams wasn’t afraid to take on blitzing defenders.
“His ability to block and run fakes was exceptional,” Belskis said. “That’s what the colleges look for.
“I remember against [Lyons Township], on the first play of the game Josh picked up the blitz and he just decleats the kid, knocks him over and we hit a big pass play. One [opposing] coach told me he saw that on film and said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I said, ‘That’s what he did every week.’”
Opposing defenses worked hard to stop Williams and a few were able to contain him for a quarter or a half. But his ability to sell the fake opened up lanes for teammates like quarterback A.J. Simoncelli, whose 67-yard touchdown run up the middle after a fake handoff to Williams was a key play in the win over Downers North. Even Belskis, who knew it was coming, said he was fooled on the play.
Ultimately, the Mustangs’ season came to end in a 47-19 state quarterfinal loss to Bolingbrook, which went on to win its first state championship by beating Loyola two weeks later.
“We wished we could have gone farther but finishing 10-2 is great,” Williams said. “The season as a whole we felt we worked hard and we did everything that was in our power.”
A LESSON LEARNED
With his gaudy statistics and team-first attitude, Williams figured to draw plenty of interest from Division I coaches, but that hasn’t been the case for three reasons.
The injury woes during his junior year – the prime recruiting season – and his size were held against him, but so were his grades, which were high enough to keep him eligible but low enough to disqualify him from the more academically stringent universities.
Williams readily admits that his indifferent attitude in the classroom during his freshman and sophomore years cost him dearly, including a shot at the Gatorade Player of the Year award, which takes into consideration academic performance. Even though he has worked harder lately, it was a tough lesson.
Williams, who plans to study criminal justice, is currently looking at schools like North Dakota, Bemidji State and Wisconsin-Whitewater, which is playing for the Division III national championship on Friday. Another destination could be Elmhurst, the Division III school that Scottie plays for. Playing with his brother, who broke his own Elmhurst single-season rushing record this year, would be great, but Williams isn’t picky.
“To me it really doesn’t matter what level I play at,” he said. “I just want to go somewhere where I have a chance to contribute.”
The contributions Williams and his brother made at Downers South the past six years are something that will be tough to replicate. That was especially true this season, which Belskis, who has been Downers South’s head coach since 1989, said was one of the most memorable in a career that includes 197 wins and the 2001 state championship.
“This was a fun team to coach,” Belskis said. “I’ll look back at this team as one I enjoyed the most and that was because of kids like Josh. He is just a very special young man and I hope I’m lucky enough to have someone like that again.”