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As a Pop Warner prodigy, Joe Williams would drill the opposing kickoff returner as soon as he caught the ball.

In junior high, referees made him sit out the second half, his penalty for being too fast, too strong.

Now, when his father dines out in eastern Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, people stop by to ask about the boy who rushed for 300 yards in a single half at Emmaus High and appeared destined for stardom at UConn.

Where's Joe?

How's he doing?

(What happened?)

Williams was the Huskies' likely No. 2 back as a sophomore-to-be when, two years ago this August, campus police discovered that a stolen credit card was used to ship a pricey backpack to his Pennsylvania home.

Just like that, his UConn career was over.

"I felt like I had hit rock bottom," said Williams, who holed up in his parents' house for months after he left Storrs. "I wasn't working out or anything. It was a bad time for me."

The last like it, he hopes.

Williams has since spent a year at an obscure Brooklyn junior college, and his dad, Kenny, believes he's brought to Utah a singular focus that has eluded him most of his life.

His lone sibling, Kylee, died abruptly of a heart attack when he was 14 and she was just 7, shaking the tight-knit household and leaving Williams hard to reach through his teen years, Kenny said.

He was an outgoing and eminently likable kid, said former Emmaus High coach Joe Bottiglieri, but he was drawn by new clothes and other indulgences. He didn't always listen. He made poor choices.

When Williams was accused of shoplifting before he left for UConn, Bottiglieri cautioned him, "Was it a $20 item, a $30 item? You're going to blow a $200,000 item," referring to his four-year scholarship.

"He said, 'You're right, coach. I wasn't thinking. I wasn't focused.'"

He was focused enough to endure a semester at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, where they separated him from his beloved cellphone while he qualified to play for UConn.

He was focused enough to earn limited playing time as a freshman.

But Williams, who doesn't shy away from the subject, said he got "stuck in with the wrong group of people" in Connecticut.

He asked some of the older players about the nice clothes, backpacks and sneakers they wore, he said, and they told him they had a way to buy things at a discount rate. He gave them $100 for a backpack retailing for $1,400, and, a week later, a package arrived at his house.

Then, the cops called.

"If it was sent to my house, in my name, you would obviously point the finger at me," he said. Indeed, one blog post was headlined "UConn RB Commits Impressively Lazy Crime."

Williams said he made an Alford plea in summer 2014 — asserting innocence but admitting that the prosecution would likely win a conviction on the evidence — because he required resolution to play junior college ball.

That is, obviously, just his side of the story, but it's one that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham found credible when he sat down with Williams and his father.

"He just got into one unfortunate situation that, really, when you know the inner workings of it, was not his fault, but he was in the middle of it," Whittingham said. "I guess ignorance is no excuse, but I felt, and everybody felt in our program, coaching staff-wise, that it was not a big risk."

Kenny has noticed a change in his son since he overcame his post-UConn blues and chose to attend Brooklyn's ASA College. He spends more time at home.

He values time with family. It was soon apparent as they toured ASA's facilities that it was a far cry from Division I, "but he was like, 'You know what? I put myself in this position. I have to work my way out of it.'"

Williams totaled 1,093 yards rushing and 237 yards receiving in just nine games in Brooklyn — earning the attention of Utah running backs coach Dennis Erickson — and he met his girlfriend, Jasmine Jones, who has moved from New Jersey to work at Utah's campus store and try out for the school's track team. Jones keeps him mellow and grounded, he said. "She's a blessing, to say the least."

His parents — Kenny delivers and installs home appliances and Jo-Anne is a hospital financial counselor — will be on hand for Utah's opener against Michigan on Sept. 3, the day before his 22nd birthday.

There's a decent shot they'll see him play. He recently ran a laser-timed 4.38 40-yard dash — the fastest of his life and the second-fastest on the team — and was the only Utah newcomer to appear on the depth chart before the start of fall camp.

And he's become fast friends (giving another meaning to the phrase) with fall camp roommate and off-campus neighbor Devontae Booker, the latest in a long line of successful junior-college-to-Utah running backs that includes Jamal Anderson, Mike Anderson, Quinton Ganther and John White.

He's farther from home than Kenny Williams would like, but dad sleeps easier these days, comfortable that his son is finally on the right track.

Where's Joe? At Utah.

How's he doing? Good.

Twitter: @matthew_piper —

Joe Williams file

Vitals • 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, No. 28

From • Emmaus High near Allentown, Pa.

Before Utah • Played in nine games as a freshman at UConn before transferring to ASA College in Brooklyn, where he rushed 163 times for 1,093 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games and caught 16 passes for 237 yards and three scores. Rushed for 1,243 yards despite being used sparingly in the first few games of his senior season at Emmaus High. Ran a 10.5-second, 100-meter dash.