Nathan Bussey came on as a senior strongside linebacker for Illinois in 2010. He performed well enough to be a late round NFL draftee, and he will be missed. But Ashante Williams has waited his turn and appears poised to have an excellent junior season.
"I think I'm gonna do a pretty good job," Williams states without a hint of bragging. "I took a lot of reps and learned from him last year, and I got a little bit of game experience. I like to hit, and I like to be out there and have fun. So I think I'm gonna do a good job."
Williams took his responsibilities seriously over the winter and during spring ball, and it is paying off.
"It's going good this year. I'm getting used to taking all the reps. I'm out there every practice trying to improve upon the things I messed up last practice, things I need to correct. I'm trying to do the best I can to be mistake-free every day.
"It's not a conditioning problem. I got in the best shape of my life. It's just fine-tuning everything, being at the right spot at the right time. Making the right read and taking the right angle, get my responsibility right. Basically, the more I do it, with muscle memory everything comes natural."
The Mayfield, Ohio, native has played cornerback, safety, nickel back and now SAM. His versatility has become an asset at his new position, which requires both run-stuffing and coverage skills.
"It really doesn't matter where I play. I like covering people; that's natural for a db. I also like to come down and hit people. That gets me in trouble too. I like to shoot the gap rather than stay back on the fence and read a little bit more. But it really doesn't matter to me if I'm in the box or covering. Football is football.
"I can line up and guard the slot receivers, backpedal, flip my hips. I can play on coverage, I can blitz, hit up on the run. So basically all the positions I've played have helped me out a lot."
Williams enjoys playing for outside linebacker coach Ron West.
"Coach West is a character. He's hilarious. He's always animated, 100% full go. He's a good coach, he's a player's coach. He's always on you and telling you when you're wrong. He's always interactive during a practice and making sure you're doing the right thing. He gives you full input on and off the field every day."
And he gives great credit to defensive coordinator Vic Koenning for improving the Illinois defense, including their confidence and aggressiveness.
"Most definitely. The attitude that Coach Koenning brought to this program is something we hadn't had for a few years. It changed the whole defense, the whole program. Coach (Paul) Petrino and Coach Vic, the two new coordinators, reignited the whole Illinois program.
"We're really excited about having another year to be with him. Last year, we were rushing to learn everything, put everything in. We now have a year under our belts, and we know everything. Now we can make little tweaks and changes, make sure we've got the defense down 100%."
Illini head coach Ron Zook is impressed with Williams, who was named defensive MVP of spring.
"I really like the off season Ashante's had. You can tell how they're working off the field how they're gonna be on the field. I think he's gonna be fine."
Koenning feels Williams could have a breakout season.
"Ashante got a whole lot of reps last year. I think he's got a whole lot of potential. Athletically, he's probably a guy that can do more things than Bussey. He's a different type of player."
The 5'-11", 205 pounder envisions good things for 2011 and beyond.
"The Texas Bowl was just a small stepping stone for us to try to reach bigger goals this year hopefully. Improve on some of those wins and compete a little bit better than last year.
"We've got a chip on our shoulder. We're trying to prove the country wrong, that we can be a defense without those key losses. People saying we can't replace Martez (Wilson), Corey Liuget and Bussey. But we think we've got a lot more this year, a lot to prove. We're just hungry.
"We want to get out there and get after it. Prove to the world that we're a Top 25 defense. Last year was the first bowl game in three years. We're trying to keep on improving on that, for the program and future generations."