James Jones, the veteran NFL wide receiver, has no formal ties to the Nebraska football program, but he may quickly become popular with Husker fans.

It's not what Jones has done for the program; it's what he tells his close friend and mentor, NU receivers coach Keith Williams.

Jones' message: Never mind the NFL.

"We've had this conversation numerous times," Jones told me this week. "I tell him all the time that I want him to stay in college because I truly believe there's no better coach and no better mentor in the world than him."

The 32-year-old Jones, currently a free agent, is among NFL receivers who plan to travel to Lincoln this offseason to receive coaching and guidance from Williams. Others include Ryan Grant of Washington, Xavier Rush of the Philadelphia Eagles, Davante Adams of the Green Bay Packers, Jeremy Ross of the New York Jets and Mike Wallace of the Baltimore Ravens.

Grant describes Williams as a "skill-specific engineer, a specialist in his craft."

To be sure, Williams is adept at coaching the technical aspects of receiving, and he's a grade-A motivator. But both Jones and Grant, who played for Williams at San Jose State and Tulane, respectively, agree that much of Williams' value comes from developing young players as people — teaching life skills.

"I always tell Keith that when you get to the National Football League, these dudes are grown men, they have families," Jones said. "And to be honest with you, it's all about the money. I truly believe that once you make it to the NFL, guys feel they already have everything they need.

"I truly believe the impact Keith's having on college kids outweighs any money or any opportunity he might get in the NFL, because he's changing kids' lives."

Added Grant, the third-year Washington receiver: "We had a conversation about him going to the NFL level. But I don't think it would be best for him. I think it's best for him to guide young men."

We broach the subject because Williams' value has become increasingly evident to Nebraska fans, who naturally wonder whether the Huskers can keep him in the fold. NFL teams, as well as other college programs, are well aware of Williams' talents. I'm told at least a couple of NFL franchises made a run at him this offseason.

Yes, we've written about Williams a lot of late. That's because he's a tone-setter in second-year head coach Mike Riley's Husker program, a valuable recruiter who coaches the most talented position group on the roster.

He guides his receivers with a unique mixture of intense attention to detail, humor and even clever use of metaphor.

Watch a Husker practice; he's usually the loudest and most demonstrative coach.

But he's more than just an energetic teacher of skills.

"A lot of the stuff he taught me as my mentor in college, I still use to this day," said Jones, who caught 50 passes for 890 yards and eight touchdowns last season for the Packers. "I use his teachings on my own kids at home. It was a lot of knowledge about how to be a man, how to be a husband, how to be a great teammate, how to be a great person.

"The good thing about Keith is, there's nothing he hasn't been through. If you're a kid that came from the streets and lived in the 'hood, so has Keith. If you've experienced the finer things in life — traveled here, traveled there and lived a good life — so has Keith.

"As a result, he's able to relate to any person, whether you're black or white or Asian, whatever. He's able to mentor everybody because he's been through so many situations. I think that's what makes him a great coach because he's been through so much and seen everything, so he's able to communicate with guys on a different level."

But let's be clear: Williams' skill-specific coaching is valuable enough to draw NFL players to Lincoln. That says plenty.

"You simply aren't going to get the kind of work Keith provides with any other coach that I know of," Grant said.

Williams is like an automobile engine technician who specializes in high-end performance vehicles.

He coached Rush for three seasons at Tulane (2012-14).

"He has the juice, you know what I mean?" Rush said. "He's very detail-oriented and very passionate. He actually shows you what to do. Goes through the movements with you. He's always going to bring the focus and energy, and that makes you want to match it. He brings it all out of you."

Williams instilled in Rush an aggressive mindset. The coach pushed Rush to be a student of the game.

Rush will travel to Lincoln this summer for more learning, and not necessarily just about running routes and catching passes.

Jones is passionate as he discusses Williams. 

"Somebody could come after him from the NFL and offer him money that makes his family good for the rest of their lives," Jones said. "But he knows how I feel about that. …"

Many Nebraska fans are glad to hear it.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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