There used to be an enormous banner celebrating Justin Hardy as the all-time FBS receptions leader hanging above the East Carolina football weight room inside the Murphy Center.
It’s been replaced by an even bigger banner celebrating Zay Jones, the man that surpassed Hardy’s record to become the second Pirate in three seasons to take ownership of the national mark for career catches.
Jimmy Williams sees it every day when he works out with his teammates and is well aware of its significance. As ECUs best returning receiver and the expected go-to guy on this year’s team, Williams has some big shoes to fill and an extraordinarily high standard to maintain.
The expectations that come with following two record setters the likes of Hardy and Jones can be an intimidating proposition for some. But it’s a challenge Williams isn’t hesitant about embracing.
With only 87 career catches, the redshirt senior knows he won’t come close to reaching Jones’ career record of 399. That’s why instead of setting his sights on a banner of his own to replace those of his two immediate predecessors, his goal is to help the Pirates earn a team banner as American Athletic Conference champions.
“I don’t really look at what’s come before me,” the redshirt senior said. “It’s me now. I’m going to do what I can do and be the best player that I can be. Looking at those guys, I know I have to perform. But I don’t look at it like a competition. I’m not in competition with anybody. I don’t really feel like I have any pressure on me.”
One reason Williams is so comfortable in his role as the Pirates’ receiving leader is that unlike Jones last season, he has an abundance of pass catchers surrounding him.
Opposing defenses won’t be able to key in on him and design schemes to stop him the way they tried with Jones in 2016. Not with Quay Johnson, whose 58 catches last season were actually 13 more than Williams’ 45, and promising sophomore Deondre Farrier flanking him.
The return of Davon Grayson, who missed last season because of injury, will only strengthen the Pirates’ receiving corps. There is also still a possibility that fellow veteran Trevon Brown could be back, pending medical clearance for a nagging neck issue.
If those aren’t enough options for whoever wins the starting quarterback job, there’s even more depth to go around with the emergence of true freshman Mydreon Vines — who grabbed 10 balls for 123 yards and a touchdown in the Pirates’ first preseason scrimmage Saturday.
“I’m going to get these quarterbacks to spread that ball around,” coach Scottie Montgomery said. “I’d like them all to have outstanding years. You’d like to have two or three of them with 70 or 80 catches or more. If we can get to that level, it would be great for our program.”
In Williams’ case, the standard for success isn’t as much quantity as it is quality.
He became the Pirates’ most reliable deep threat last season with an average of 18.2 yards per catch and eight touchdowns, which tied him with Jones for the team lead. He had scoring catches of 31 yards against Western Carolina and two of 70 yards or more at Virginia Tech.
With more receivers capable of getting open in other areas of the field, Williams figures to have more room to operate and do even more damage this year.
“We have great players that have been playing here and I think people overlook them at times because of guys like Zay getting the ball 20 times a game,” he said. “It’s going to help having more good players in this system.
“You watch the good teams across the country and they have more than just one great receiver. Going into it, we’ve got a lot of great guys and even some young guys ready to play ball.”
None of them is more excited about that opportunity than Williams himself. That’s because there was a real possibility the opportunity wouldn’t be available to him.
Williams played in two games as a freshman, catching five passes, before an injury to his left foot ended his season. As such, he had to apply to the NCAA for a hardship waiver to get the year of eligibility back and extend his career.
The 5-foot-11, 198-pound native of Washington, NC, said he never lost any sleep over the impending decision, confident that his appeal would be approved. That didn’t make the good news any less welcomed when it finally came down last April.
“I’m more blessed than anything, because I get a whole another year to play football. I went out last year and had a decent season, but that’s not the season I wanted. Now I get to be our primetime, No. 1 guy. Now I have the chance to show out.”
Williams isn’t ready to put a number on what “showing out” exactly means. Whatever it turns out to be, the expectations he’ll be trying to meet won’t be those of Hardy, Jones or anyone else other than his own.