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June 25, 2008
Williams' development key to Illini's rise
He couldn't do it. He wasn't good enough. He wanted to leave Camp Rantoul and go home to Chicago.
"I was eating dinner at training camp my freshman year, sitting across from Coach (Mike) Locksley," Williams says. "I was struggling and didn't think I could be a quarterback at this level. It was bad."
Look at him now – poised to take the next step in his development as one of the nation's most dangerous and versatile quarterbacks.
Williams went nowhere that hot August day in 2006. Locksley, Illinois' offensive coordinator, talked him off the ledge. Still, there are times that doubt still descends on the Fighting Illini's wunderkind. It's the "Isiah" inside of Williams. Isiah is soft-spoken, almost shy. And he's filled with a little fear.
Am I good enough?
What will people back home think if I fail?
Can I be a great quarterback?
But the "Juice" part of Williams will have none of this. Juice fears nothing. Juice can throw the ball 70 yards. Juice can break tackles and leap over tall defensive ends in a single bound. You know, super-hero stuff.
"It's difficult for him sometimes," Locksley says. "He has to deal with a lot of stuff. He just has to remember who he is. But, honestly, he needs to focus on being Isiah more than being Juice."
When Williams left the shadow of the Chicago skyscrapers for the tall corn that encircles Champaign, there was nowhere to hide. Williams was one of Rivals.com's top 100 recruits of 2006, the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the nation, an 18-year-old with a kitschy nickname that came compliments of a grandmother who thought 13-pound, 8-ounce Baby Isiah was "big and juicy."
If the nickname and prodigious prep feats weren't enough, Williams also had the cachet that came with hailing from the same Chicago Vocational Career Academy as city grid legends Dick Butkus, Chris Zorich and Keena Turner.
Williams was an Illinois recruiting priority, and no doubt the Illini needed help. The program had fallen into disarray under Ron Turner, whose teams went 9-26 overall and 5-19 in the Big Ten in the three seasons after an improbable run to the conference title in 2001. Turner's last two years were especially brutal - the Illini went 1-15 in league play.
Morale sagged. The talent level waned. And the team stunk.
While Williams wasn't ready, it didn't matter. He had to play. He had a program to save.
Illinois had gone 2-9 in Ron Zook's first season, but Williams' arrival meant hope and further legitimized Zook's reputation as a primo recruiter.
Williams played in the first three games as a backup as a true freshman in 2006 before finally overtaking Tim Brasic as the starter in the fourth game. But Williams often looked lost.
"Ron finally came to me one day and said, 'Why don't you just tell him who to throw to,' " Locksley says. "So, we did. On pass plays his freshman year, I would tell a coach on the sideline who Juice should throw to, and it would be signaled into him.
"It was risky. We had some balls picked off. But it helped slow the game down for him."
The first glimpse of greatness came in a game at Michigan State late that season. Illinois was a 26-point underdog, but Williams engineered a fourth-quarter drive that culminated in a game-winning 39-yard field goal for Illinois' first Big Ten victory since 2004. Williams threw for 122 yards and a touchdown, and also rushed for 103 yards.
That is what Zook envisioned when Williams committed to Illinois in May 2005. After Illinois went 4-19 overall his first two years, including a 1-15 mark in the Big Ten, Zook's force-feeding of Williams paid off last season. The Illini went 9-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten en route to reaching the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1983 season.
"He's about where we thought he'd be at this stage of his career," Zook says. "He's getting better at making the right decisions with the ball, but he still needs to learn what it means to be a quarterback in all facets of the game, even away from the field."
AS JUICE GOES, SO GO THE ILLINI
Sitting in Locksley's second-floor office in the Illinois football complex on a June day, Williams – who is 6 feet 3 and 233 pounds – looks like he just stepped out of a J Crew catalog: He's sporting a bright white striped shirt, fresh jeans and shiny shoes.
One thing strikes you as he sits down: This is how God would build a quarterback. But look closely and listen intently. You can see and hear Isiah. His eyes dart when answering some questions. He speaks in muted tones. There's still some "can I do it?" in that strapping frame. Sure, Juice earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season, but Isiah knows he still isn't a complete quarterback.
"He didn't even know how to watch film when he got here," Locksley says. "And he didn't even know the terms. But he's getting better. Now, he talks like a quarterback. He can tell me what he sees out there and describe it like he should.
"Instead of saying, 'That guy was in the way of who I was throwing to, so I did that,' he'll say, 'The safety pressed down, so I looked off and checked down to the X receiver.' "
Williams is off to sweat in the central Illinois heat, honing his footwork and helping lead informal passing drills. It's all about developing chemistry with a receiving corps that Locksley thinks will be his best yet.
It's also about leadership. This is Williams' team – at least it's supposed to be with tailback Rashard Mendenhall off early to the NFL. Williams and Locksley volley the idea of what a vocal leader is during late-night skull sessions. Is Williams a vocal leader? Not really. It's just not him. His physical bravado is paired with a reserved personality. He has to do it by example. And it's also vital to carry himself like a lead quarterback 24/7.
"That's an area he has gotten better at," Locksley says. "So much of the position is acting the part even when you aren't on the field. He has a lot on his plate. He's also the father of a young daughter. Much of that work is taking place this summer between him and his teammates."
Williams is learning to "trust the route," as Locksley says. When Williams is told to deliver the ball to a certain area, he must do it. To that end, Williams will throw a few passes during workouts with a blindfold on, throwing to where the receiver is supposed to be. Trust the route.
The goal is to make Williams more of a quarterback and less of an athlete. The progress is tangible. In 2006, Williams was 103 of 261 (39 percent) for 1,489 yards, with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. Last season, he was 153 of 267 (57.3 percent) for 1,743 yards, with 13 TDs and 12 picks.
The athlete? Oh, he's still there. Williams rushed for 576 yards and two scores in 2006 and 774 yards last season with seven touchdowns. Locksley doesn't want it to go away. There still will be five to eight planned runs each game for Williams, but he needs to make reading defense and finding the second and third options in the passing game a more common occurrence. It's all about making defenses respect the passing game to provide some balance for an offense that has had one of the Big Ten's best rushing attacks.
"Oh, he gets on me," Williams says of Locksley. "He quizzes me before games, asking me to call out fronts, coverages and where I would go with the ball."
Locksley: "He threw a bad interception that was returned for a touchdown coming out of halftime against Ball State last year. I was upset and told him he had one more chance. If he didn't make something happen on his next drive, I was going to take him out."
Williams: "I told him to give me one more shot."
Williams delivered, charging in from 10 yards for a touchdown to give Illinois a lead it didn't relinquish in a victory that made the Illini bowl-eligible for the first time since 2001. It was part of the growing process, which also included Williams overcoming an early-season injury suffered against Missouri and rebounding to reclaim his starting spot from Eddie McGee.
The piece de la résistance was an upset of No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus last fall. Williams converted a huge fourth-and-inches at Illinois' 34 with fewer than seven minutes left and the Illini leading 28-21. Williams, who hit 12 of 22 passes for 140 yards and four TDs, converted two more third-down runs during the drive to kill the clock and seal one of the biggest upsets of the season.
The drive already is legendary on Green Street in Champaign. And the victory stamped Illinois as legit and buffed the status Williams brought to campus in 2006.
Maybe he can do this.
Now, it's time for more. Illinois will be ranked in most preseason polls for the first time since 2002. Ohio State will be the Big Ten favorite, but Illinois will be lurking and ready to capture the crown.
"It's an exciting time," Zook says. "We aren't where we want to be yet. But we are getting closer. And a lot of it has to do with Juice's development."
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.