Weber State’s defense plays with the discipline and physicality one might expect from a University of Utah team.

But it’s epitomized by an Idahoan.

Senior Jonah Williams, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound two-time All-Big Sky Conference defensive end and former Rocky Mountain standout, spearheads a defensive front seven that Idaho coach Paul Petrino has put the emphasis on.

“The biggest thing you gotta do against them is block their front,” Petrino said. “I think that’s the No. 1 most important thing.”

All “four of ’em do a really good job,” but “if you had to pick one,” Petrino noted, it’s the 24-year-old from Meridian, who’s been through the ringer on his way to becoming one of the Big Sky’s premier defenseman.

The Vandals (2-3, 0-1 Big Sky) will see if they can contain Williams and Co. at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Kibbie Dome, when No. 5 and back-to-back league champion Weber State (2-2) comes to town (SWX, Pluto TV).

Williams, a 2013 high school graduate, had his eyes on Boise State and Utah State when his prep career finished, but neither of the schools was keen on offering him because he was set on fulfilling his obligations to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It meant he’d go on a two-year mission. The Aggies and Broncos told him “they’d see how I was when I got back,” Williams said.

“But Weber told me they wanted to give me a scholarship, even after I served a mission,” he said. “That was a big deal for me.”

After a six-week language-training course, Williams set off to Sao Paulo, Brazil, for an “eye-opening” experience and his first time out of North America.

“You get a new perspective on life when you’re just out there in a smaller country, trying to help others for two years,” he said.

Upon his return, the Wildcats still had that spot open, where he lined up beside Adam Lewis for two seasons, just like the two had done at Rocky Mountain.

But for Williams, it was a late blossoming as a Grizzly. As a junior, he came in at 6-foot, 195 pounds. A year later, he bulked up to 6-5, 250, and never lost his size or athleticism, despite a two-year football hiatus.

Since, Williams has embodied what it means to be a Wildcat defender — he’s not flashy, unselfish in nature, hard-nosed and exceedingly disciplined.

“You get gassed playing selfishly,” he said. “Doing things for each other is how you establish a dominant defense. It’s always me trying to get pressure so the defensive backs get interceptions, and them holding down coverages so we can get sacks. We just play for each other.”

Williams, who is originally from Stanwood, Wash. — he moved to the Treasure Valley at age 15 — is the leader of a group that boasts 10 former Idaho prep standouts, all from the southern part of the state.

Fun fact: Williams isn’t personally acquainted with UI’s Nick Romano, a 2019 Rocky Mountain grad, but Williams’ brother, Tyler, is a friend of the Vandals’ running back.

“It’s crazy to look at how old I am now,” Williams laughed. “This kid just graduated and I’m watching him on film now. Great talent.”

In the recent past, recruiting the Gem State was a focus for Weber State, mostly thanks to the efforts of Jerome native Colton Swan, a former longtime Wildcats assistant who’s in his first year coaching the linebackers for the Utes.

That link has faded a bit, but the Weber/Utah connection is unmistakable.

All but three on the Weber coaching staff have either played or coached for the Utes, including head coach/defensive coordinator Jay Hill, who spent 13 years in Salt Lake, four under famed coaches Ron McBride and Urban Meyer.

It might not be obvious on paper — because the ’Cats have played two Mountain West opponents — but Weber owns one of the best defenses in the Football Championship Subdivision, just as the Utes do in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Even against highly favored San Diego State and Nevada, the Weber defense allowed just six and 19 points, respectively.

It’s forced eight turnovers and racked up 10 sacks, both top-30 FCS marks. Williams has three of those sacks.

“It’s the physicality side of it,” Williams said. “As a defense, we establish physicality. We love going first on the field and setting the tone.”

This weekend, for the first time in 24 years, the Wildcats will look to set the tone against their fellow Big Sky charter member.

Williams doesn’t need much to get enthusiastic.

“It’s usually a big family event when I play (in Idaho),” Williams said, referencing Idaho State but extending the thought to UI, where most of his relatives will come to watch. “I’m just happy to be back playing in Idaho; I’m sure it’ll be a great experience.”

Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.

Recommended for you