Maturation process for Illinois' Williams coming full circle
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Quarantined to his room by a surgically repaired knee, Illinois wide receiver Chris James was enjoying another quiet afternoon last November when the door suddenly swung open.
Illini quarterback Juice Williams didn't bother to knock. He nearly took the thing off its hinges.
"He just busted in my room with his notepad, like, 'They do this, they do that. When they play Cover 3, I'm gonna get 'em,'" James recalled. "He was coming in every day, bothering me."
But James didn't get the worst of his flatmate's harassment that week. Ohio State did.
When Williams got through with the top-ranked Buckeyes, a 28-21 win on Nov. 10, he left them not only bothered, but beaten. The quarterback with the unsettling completion percentage and the debatable decision-making skills tossed four touchdowns and converted a critical fourth down to lead a boomeranging Illinois team to its biggest win in the modern era.
Fast feet and a strong arm helped Williams, but he won the game the way a quarterback's supposed to, from the neck up.
"Going into Ohio State, he did a lot of studying," James said. "He really understood what they were doing. Once he understands, his confidence goes through the roof."
Any doubt about Williams' ability to understand disappeared after he decoded one of the nation's top defenses and helped Illinois reach the Rose Bowl. Coverages were no longer a mystery to him. Neither was leadership.
Heading into this season, Williams is no longer seen as the raw underclassman running a Big Ten offense ahead of schedule, but a seasoned, dual-threat quarterback leading a team determined to prove it's no one-year wonder. A finished product he's not, but Williams is accelerating his learning curve.
"It's time to lean on him," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "We've kind of carried him along the way with kid gloves, and I don't mean that in any kind of derogatory manner, because I think we should have.
"But he's matured to the point now where he's ready to shoulder more of the load."
An hour before a recent practice, Williams walked into the players' lounge on the second floor of the Illinois football office. He removed the Bluetooth headset from his right ear but kept the hood of his Illini sweatshirt over his head. Just as Williams sat down for an interview, running backs coach Reggie Mitchell walked in and yanked off the hood.
The message: every detail matters, especially for a team leader.
"They really got on top of me in the early part of spring because I was more laid-back," Williams said. "It didn't really occur to me, but when I thought about it, it was like, 'I'm a junior now. I'm the quarterback. I've been a starter for the last two years.'
"It hit me then."
It was hammered home throughout the spring.
Instead of spending his time learning plays and coverage schemes, Williams refined his footwork, his passing technique and his decision-making. His coaches no longer tiptoed around the subject of leadership. They demanded it.
"Before, you wouldn't want to get on him around the guys, but now you can," Mitchell said. "He's responded. Before, he'd get up to the line and he had to process. Now he can get up there and know where he's going with the ball."
Accuracy remains a concern for Williams despite significant improvement from his freshman to sophomore year. He threw only one more touchdown (13) than interception in 2007 and ranked last in the Big Ten in passing efficiency (119.2).
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"I don't see why he can't be a 70 percent passer," Zook said.
Williams has his own goals. Among them is convincing offensive coordinator Mike Locksley to let him call the plays for an offensive series.
If he ever sells Locksley on the idea, he won't get worried looks in the huddle.
"You can see it growing," said wideout Arrelious "Rejus" Benn, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. "He's putting people where they need to be. It's his offense and if he feels like he wants to do something, that's what he's going to do and we're going to listen."
Williams isn't an extrovert, but his words are still hitting their mark.
"They don't look at me as a freshman or a sophomore anymore, a guy who just got here," Williams said. "They look up to me now as a role model. Everything is starting to change."
Williams came to Illinois with the physical gifts to dominate the Chicago Public League, but without the film-room savvy needed to flummox Big Ten defenses. He ran the wishbone and the shotgun spread in high school and had familiarity with the read option Illinois uses, but deciphering defenses in the passing game was overwhelming.
"When we had Chris Leak at Florida, Chris was brought up being a quarterback," Zook said. "That wasn't really Juice's deal."
A redshirt season would have helped. So would another as a backup. But Illinois didn't have that luxury, and Williams became the starter four games into his college career.
He completed just 39.5 percent of his passes as a freshman, connecting on better than 50 percent just twice as Illinois went 2-10.
They don't look at me as a freshman or a sophomore anymore, a guy who just got here. They look up to me now as a role model. Everything is starting to change.
"There were a lot of things I came to college with that I should have known, but I did not have a clue," he said. "It was to the point where I didn't really understand coverages: Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4. [Locksley] was introducing different coverages to me throughout the week of game planning.
"For the most part, I had to learn the entire position from scratch. That's not something I'm ashamed of."
He had dealt with adversity before, never letting it show on his face. Even when he disobeyed his mother growing up, he took her scolding with a smile.
But his trial-and-error evolution at Illinois, combined with the pressure to do his hometown proud, took a toll.
"I was worried about him," Zook said. "The smile had come off his face. He wasn't having any fun."
"I felt like the weight of Chicago was on my back," Williams explained.
When Zook re-established Illinois in Chicago's recruiting realm, Williams was his first major find. Williams starred for Vocational Career Academy on the city's South Side, the same high school that sent a linebacker named Dick Butkus to Illinois in the early 1960s.
Along with former Notre Dame quarterback Demetrius Jones, Williams became a front man for the Public League, which mass-produces prospects but sees many fall short of their dreams.
QB Juice Williams didn't put up gaudy passing numbers in 2007, but he certainly improved his accuracy and the team's bottom line during his sophomore season.
"It's a lot of pressure."
The pressure persisted into the 2007 season.
In the opener against Missouri, Williams took a blow to the head and left in the second quarter. Backup Eddie McGee nearly rallied Illinois to a win and ignited talk of a quarterback controversy.
McGee, who hails from the Illini's other major recruiting wellspring, Washington, D.C., continued to replace Williams at critical junctures, either because of injury or performance. He led fourth-quarter scoring drives in wins against Wisconsin and Penn State, and relieved Williams in a 10-6 loss at Iowa.
"It bothered me early because no one wants to lose the starting position," Williams said. "But I thought from [the coaches'] perspective. They were using it to calm me down or take me out of a bad situation when I'm not feeling as confident.
"Eddie came in and made a big play here and there, but when he fell back down, I was able to lift the team back up."
He first had to lift himself up.
"After Iowa, I just said, 'Forget it. Go out there and have fun,'" Williams said. "Since that game, I just continued to climb."
Williams has never struggled to earn the trust of his coaches. He first arrived at Vocational in the spring before his freshman year and quickly convinced varsity coach Charles Chambers that he should start at quarterback immediately.
Several years later, Williams sold Chambers on a more delicate proposal: dating his daughter, Chez.
"My friends gave me crap about it all the time because my coach, he's so strict," Williams said. "But he was always more lenient toward me."
Williams and Chez remain together at Illinois, where Chez is also a student. Two days after the 2007 season opener, Chez gave birth to a daughter, LaChez, whom Williams calls his "extra, extra motivation."
"Juice stepped up, just like he did on the field," Charles Chambers said. "He sees the big picture. He knows what he wants out of it."
Gaining Zook's trust in the Ohio State game was all about the little picture, namely a few inches of turf separating the football from the first-down marker. The Illini led 28-21 at the time, but faced fourth-and-inches on their own 33-yard line with nearly seven minutes left.
Zook went by the book and opted to punt, but after Ohio State called timeout, Williams talked the coach out of it. If the situation had presented itself a month earlier, Williams admits he would have stayed away.
"To see coach Zook risk his season and his name for a decision that I made, it means a lot," Williams said. "He saw the confidence in my eyes. I had no doubt. I felt I could get two inches and I got two yards."
Illinois ran out the clock and celebrated its first win against a No. 1 team since 1956.
"I didn't think about it at the time, but had we not gotten that, you think, 'What could have happened to me?'" Zook said. "But when he looked in my eyes and I looked in his eyes, I really didn't have a choice.
"If we want him to lead, we've got to let him lead."
After protecting Williams early in his career, Zook plans to stand back this fall.
"I can tell they're really leaning on me," Williams said. "I can see it, I can feel it and I'm willing to accept it."
Adam Rittenberg is a college football writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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