LAWRENCE — Pooka Williams made his season debut Saturday, and afterward, he spoke with the media for the first time in his Kansas football career.
Williams saved his final statement for social media, however, with the star sophomore running back adopting a positive outlook in the aftermath of a tumultuous offseason and a disappointing outcome to his return to the field.
"Minor set back!" Williams tweeted. "I swear that's what keep me going."
He capped the tweet with a “100” emoji.
Williams tallied 99 yards on 22 carries in the Jayhawks’ 12-7 defeat to Coastal Carolina at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium, also contributing two receptions for 10 yards. It was a much-anticipated evening for the 5-foot-10, 170-pounder, who last December was charged with misdemeanor domestic battery after a confrontation with a female KU student with whom he had been romantically involved.
Williams, who was suspended from team activities for seven months and for the Jayhawks’ season-opening victory over Indiana State, is in the process of having the charge dropped per the terms of a one-year diversion agreement he reached with the Douglas County District Attorney’s office. In that agreement's stipulation of facts, Williams acknowledged grabbing and pushing the victim “in a rude, insulting or angry manner” at approximately 12:30 a.m. on Dec. 5.
While Williams didn’t go into specifics regarding the incident during his first public comments as a Jayhawk — a policy under former head coach David Beaty prevented true freshmen from speaking to the media, and KU opted to wait until Williams’ on-field return to make him available this year — the preseason All-Big 12 selection did express remorse.
“First I want to start out with saying how sorry I am for my poor decisions in the past,” Williams said. “I’m growing as a better man.”
Williams said he “learned a lot” from the incident and its fallout — though, again, he didn’t go into any specifics on exactly what knowledge was gained — and added he’s “grateful” to be back with the team. He said that at one point he was worried he wouldn’t be welcomed back.
“I just humbled myself for real,” Williams said, “and I prayed that the University of Kansas took me back.”
KU and first-year head coach Les Miles did indeed keep the former four-star recruit on the roster, announcing conditions for his return in July. While Miles said at the time he didn’t make the decision to opt for the one-game suspension for Williams, it was a decision he stood by.
“I certainly enjoyed Pooka and his energy and effort,” Miles said after Saturday’s game.
Williams has yet to address the team regarding his offseason incident, a gesture Miles said last week that he’s tried to encourage the New Orleans native to make. Williams said he’s “working on it,” and while he has spoken to teammates such as senior quarterback Carter Stanley and others on a one-on-one basis, he didn’t reveal the content of those talks other than to say the message was “basically” an apology — “I ain’t really going to say what I wanted to say to y’all. It was between me and my teammates,” he said.
Williams’ on-field return was a mixed bag.
On the heels of a season in which he averaged 7 yards a carry and amassed 1,523 yards and nine touchdowns from scrimmage in 11 games en route to an All-Big 12 first-team selection, Williams averaged 4.5 yards per tote in his sophomore debut. He rushed three times for minus-1 yard in the pivotal fourth quarter, and while what had become a one-dimensional offense certainly didn’t help his cause, Williams didn’t make excuses in the postgame interview.
“I mean us, the running backs, not making plays,” said Williams, who was part of a rushing attack that gained 173 of the Jayhawks’ 280 total yards of offense. “We going to take the blame for it because they trust us with the ball.”
KU’s final three drives ended in failed fourth-down conversion attempts, and Williams was front-and-center for the final two.
On the second of the three, a fourth-and-4 from the Coastal Carolina 17-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Williams drew heavy contact from a defender after breaking past the line of scrimmage, but no penalty flag was thrown. Stanley, who later said Williams was the first target on the play, was forced to scramble and came up short of the sticks.
“We can’t make no excuses at all,” Williams said of the no-call. “They ain’t call it, but if they ain’t call it, they ain’t call it. It’s not like we can go back and redo it.”
Williams got the ball on KU’s final offensive play of the game, a fourth-and-3 from the team’s own 27-yard line. The play — a run option that saw Stanley toss it over to Williams — appeared doomed from the outset, with 10 defenders loaded up in the box before what ultimately became a 1-yard gain.
Williams showed visible frustration as he left the field following the play.
“At that moment it was just mostly, I felt like I let everybody down and let the team down because they trust me with fourth-down-and-3. They trust me, and I just felt like I let them down,” Williams said. “But I had to just bounce back in reality. ...
“Getting frustrated is part of football. Once I found out and realized and seen what it really was, I just took it in as a man.”
Williams and KU (1-1) continue their season at 6:30 p.m. Friday against Boston College (2-0) at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
“The (postgame) feel, I mean, the energy was down, but at the same time, it’s supposed to be down because we just took a loss,” Williams said. “So it’s all how we going to shake back from the loss next week, Friday.”