Johnathan Williams is not the typical third-string quarterback.
He has been called to bail out Grambling State when the team — and program — has need him the most over the last two seasons.
In a 2013 season that saw Grambling bottom out on and off the field in the form of a record losing streak coaching changes, boycotts and unrest with university administration, Williams — who was entrenched as a backup before D.J. Williams was lost to injury — accounted for seven touchdowns in a 47-40 win at Mississippi Valley State to snap an 18-game losing streak.
For a few fleeting moments, he provided an embattled team, athletic program (one that featured both its men’s and women’s basketball program finish last in the SWAC) and fan base with the soothing balm of victory.
Then interim coach Dennis “Dirt” Wilson, who took over after longtime head coach Doug Williams was fired only weeks into the regular season, said the win brought some respectability back to a program that had taken a tremendous hit to its storied reputation.
Williams would finish the season as the starter even though wins were still hard to come by. Williams, after Grambling lost to Southern in the annual Bayou Classic, took the 40-17 defeat harder than anyone. He was somber in interviews with the press reflecting on all the mistakes he made. “It was all on me,” he said that day.
Williams, though, vowed to get better. He promised to make a difference come 2014.
After leading Grambling State to its fifth straight win in a 63-39 route against Arkansas Pine-Bluff to keep the Tigers atop the SWAC West, first-year head coach Broderick Fobbs — a Grambling alum brought in to revive the fledging outfit — almost didn’t allow Williams his chance at redemption when the season began.
He was third on the depth chart behind incumbent D.J. Williams and Stephen Johnson following spring camp.
“All three guys put us in a unique situation having the abiity able to play anyone of them,” Fobbs said.
And even during those August practices, where jobs are usually won, Williams didn’t separate himself much in the quarterback battle because the controlled scrimmages didn’t allow for the senior to use his arsenal of skills.
“The scrimmages didn’t work in his favor,” Fobbs said about Williams being restricted to mainly pocket work. “He didn’t look as good as the other two guys. But when the lights come on (game day) which really matters, he plays very well.”
A week after Grambling beat Jackson State for their first win of the 2014 season, Williams was a big part in the Tigers beating Prairie View in the State Fair Classic coming off the bench when Johnson and D.J. Williams were hampered by injury to tally 336 yards in the 26-20 win.
In four starts since then, Williams has completed 61 percent of his passes, thrown for 1,140 yards to go along with eight touchdowns.
In probably the biggest non-regular season game outside of the Bayou Classic Grambling has played in 20 years, Williams was steady against No. 24 Alcorn State going 13-of-22 for 222 yards and a touchdown in the Tigers 28-21 upset win.
The victory signaled that Grambling football was back. And Williams had led the resurgence.
In the midst of a season that has Grambling’s sights set on a unlikely return trip to the SWAC championship game after losing 24 games over a two-year period, Williams is simultaneously keeping his personal promise to improve as a player while uplifting a bejeweled program.
“He not a typical third-string quarterback,” Fobbs said.