Ashante Williams was an established starter for the Illinois football team last year before a DUI shortly before Camp Rantoul ruined his season. He was suspended for several games and then last in the pecking order at SAM until late in the season when starter Trulon Henry, moved from safety to replace him, was injured and unable to play. Even then, it took him awhile to feel comfortable again.
"After the UCLA game, I wanted five more games. I was just starting to get into the groove. The Wisconsin game I was a little slow, just getting my feet wet. The Minnesota game a little bit more, and then the UCLA game I was really starting to hit my stride and get comfortable with it.
"I got to the point where I should've been at the beginning of the season if I had been playing all that summer. After the UCLA game, I couldn't wait to come back and get started. If we had another game today, I'd be ready. I feel good that I have a clean slate right now. I will try to keep my nose clean so I can help the team be better from day one."
It was a relief to win the bowl game after a six game losing streak.
"Yes it was, most definitely. We just wanted to go out and win for our seniors. I was astounded to hear we had never won two bowl games in a row, so that was our main focus. Hopefully, this year we can bring three back-to-back."
This year offers many changes, for the team and Williams. New head coach Tim Beckman calls Williams's position the "Star." It has a few differences from his former position at strongside linebacker.
"They still want us to be that third guy in the box, come downhill, fill those gaps and set the edge of the run. But they're going to be a lot more dependent on us in coverage, be more of a db."
The physically strong 200 pounder has played everywhere in the defensive backfield including cornerback, safety and nickel back. The transition should be a smooth one, but it does require practice.
"I work out a lot, but at the same time, I've just been getting back into the fundamentals of playing db. That's where the competition is this year. I'll be more of a db-type guy. I have to play big in the run, but also be able to cover.
"These last few years, I've been doing more of the linebacker-type stuff. Now I'm getting readjusted with my backpedal, getting out of my break and everything like that. I've been working hard, trying to make sure I maintain my strength but also stay loose and flexible at the same time."
Williams has prospered with the coaching change.
"I love the new coaching staff. I'm very familiar with the coaching staff; they actually recruited me coming out of high school. Coach Beckman recruited me when he was at Ohio State.
"When I found out that he was coming here, I was ecstatic. Coach Beckman is trying to come in and build a program like Ohio State and Michigan, schools like that."
"Coach Beckman actually coached my Star position, so that's even more of a plus. The coaches are basically family driven and want to make sure they're there for the players 24/7. Just knowing that he knows the type of background I come from and what I've been through, it's just another clean slate for me. I'm looking forward to it."
He says the new and old defenses are similar.
"There are a lot of similarities with the previous defense also. Coach Banks (Tim, defensive coordinator) came from a highly ranked defense at Cincinnati. He reminds me of Coach Vic (Koenning) a lot.
"They run kind of the same schemes and are basically the same type of guys mentality-wise. They want to attack and be aggressive, and they don't want to give up big plays. They want to be a top defense in the country, and I like that mentality in our coaching staff.
"On the offensive side of the ball, they're going to be up-tempo and dropping a lot of points on the board. Now that will allow us to do a lot more things and take a lot more chances to try to be dynamic on the field and create turnovers. The way they're approaching it, everything is a competition. From the way you eat to the way you train, everything is a competition. I like that."
As many do in their last college seasons, Williams is building to have his career-best year. He figures it is about time to show what he can do.
"I came off a big spring last year. I'm looking to capitalize on what I did last year and come out and have an even better spring. Hopefully, that will spring me into a phenomenal summer and phenomenal final season. Hopefully next year at this time, I'll be trying out for the pro scouts to try to get to the next level."