Commentary

Illini look for fresh start in 2009

Williams and Benn hope learning curve points Illinois back to Big Ten title race

Originally Published: August 28, 2009
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

RANTOUL, Ill. -- Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn are best known for what they do on Saturday afternoons, but some of their most important work at Illinois has taken place after the sun goes down.

[+] EnlargeArrelious Ben & Juice Williams
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesJuice Williams, left, and Arrelious Benn, are hoping to shake off the disappointment of a 5-7 2008 season.

One night this spring, Williams and Benn transformed from quarterback and wide receiver into sheriff and deputy. After an incident involving Fighting Illini players at a Champaign establishment, coaches made certain hot spots off-limits.

The next night, Williams wanted to make sure his teammates had listened.

He and Benn went to "one popular bar that everybody goes to," and found several players there.

"I was the guy who had to tell coach [Ron Zook], no matter what my teammates thought about me," Benn said. "At first, they were a little bit pissed, but they saw why I did that."

Added Williams: "It's very tough, but it had to be done. We're two of the primary names you think of when you think Illinois football, so we had to take it upon ourselves to be the disciplinarians off the field."

There were consequences, namely extra running at practice. But after a season in which the team didn't jell and Illinois missed a bowl game, the punishment was worth it.

"Some guys may look at them as snitches," wide receiver Jarred Fayson said, "but they're definitely leaders in my eyes, because in the long run, they're helping our team."

Their biggest help still is provided between the lines, where Williams and Benn form one of the nation's top passing combinations.

Williams enters his fourth year as the Illini's starting quarterback and ranks in the top 20 on the Big Ten's all-time total offense list with 8,455 yards. Benn, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2007, racked up 1,055 receiving yards last year and earned first-team all-conference honors.

Both players are on the radar for national awards, and they're even linked through a promotional Web site, 7-to-9.com (Williams wears No. 7, Benn sports No. 9).

"It's nothing better to have a quarterback and a receiver on the same page," Williams said. "Obviously, you want to have that type of relationship with every receiver, but at least to have one, with a guy like Rejus [Benn], it's phenomenal."

Benn first met Williams as a high school junior when he attended a camp at Illinois. Though Williams was a year older, Benn "looked about 30," so the age gap meant little.

It's nothing better to have a quarterback and a receiver on the same page. Obviously, you want to have that type of relationship with every receiver, but at least to have one, with a guy like Rejus [Benn], it's phenomenal.

--Juice Williams

Both players were standout recruits, particularly Benn, but they came to Illinois fairly raw.

Williams didn't have a quarterbacks coach in high school and had to learn to recognize coverages and think his way through drives. During Benn's first set of spring practices, he "couldn't catch a cold," Zook recalled.

The learning curve was steep, especially for two players from big cities who came to Champaign with lofty expectations. Williams was Zook's first major recruit from Chicago, while Benn is part of Illinois' recruiting pipeline to Washington D.C.

"You rep your home team, but right now, we he have that D.C.-Chicago affiliation," Benn said. "[The cities] expect a lot out of us."

Both Williams and Benn helped Illinois reach the Rose Bowl in 2007, but they didn't fully grasp their leadership roles until after the team's disappointing 5-7 season last year.

Fayson, who lives across the hall from Williams and several apartments down from Benn, noticed an obvious change this offseason. The two players began to ask Fayson about his time at Florida -- he transferred after two seasons in Gainesville -- and wanted to know how the seniors led the Gators team that won a national title in 2006.

Fayson shared what he had learned from former teammates Andre Caldwell, Dallas Baker and Jarvis Moss.

"It may be as small as just walking out as a whole wide receiver unit," Fayson said, "leaving the field as a whole wide receiver unit, treating our meeting room as a workplace, treating it as your 9-to-5 job."

For Williams and Benn, the work day ends long after rush hour. After doing 7-on-7s during daylight hours this summer, Williams assembled the receivers and conducted throwing sessions inside Memorial Stadium.

Rather than saving their legs, Williams and his crew worked well into the night, often not stopping until 8:30 or 9 p.m.

"There's been a few times we've been out and they had to cut the stadium lights," Williams said. "But it's great. As a freshman and sophomore, I didn't understand that hard work like that was needed."

The hard work in the dark should pay off for Williams and Benn when the spotlight shines on them this fall.

"They know they need each other," Zook said. "That's the one thing this team's finally beginning to realize."

Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com