Illini look for fresh start in 2009
Williams and Benn hope learning curve points Illinois back to Big Ten title race
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.
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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