Jeremy Werner

Breakout candidate: Justice Williams

After redshirting last season, Texas linebacker Justice Williams has quickly risen up to take a hold of a starting position

CHAMPAIGN - Almost every football recruit thinks he can make an instant impact at the next level, including Illinois linebacker Justice Williams.

But the Frisco, Texas, native arrived at Illinois with the frame of a wide receiver at a position with two veterans (James Crawford and Eric Finney) in his way. The previous Illini staff advised him to redshirt to bulk up and take time to learn the ropes of college football from the veterans.

"I may have been third string or 100th string, I don't know," Williams said. "It was kind of a process last year. Coming in, I didn't really I guess like the idea of redshirting. But I guess, looking back it now, doing it just really helped me better myself for the season."

Since he arrived on campus about 14 months ago, WIlliams has gained about 15 pounds of muscle and is earning most of the first-string reps for a Lovie Smith-Hardy Nickerson defense. What a difference a year makes.

"It'd be a dream come true (to start the Sept. 3 opener against Murray State)," Williams said. "It'd be pretty cool. But right now, I'm just trying to work through camp and trying to do the best I can to hopefully put myself in that position."

Tim Beckman's staff recruited Williams to play the STAR position, a hybrid linebacker/safety position that plays mostly outside the tackle box and fit Williams' blend of length, range and speed.

In Smith's defense, Williams plays strongside linebacker, a position that plays mostly inside the box and requires more physical play.

"Now we're in the box playing big man football now," Williams said. "Even in high school, the outside linebacker position I played in high school was really more outside the box. Now, it's something different, but at the end of the day it's still linebacker." Williams quick ascension to the first string -- alongside senior middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson and weakside linebacker James Crawford -- is more credible given that Nickerson (a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker) and linebackers coach Tim McGarigle (the FBS career tackles leader) are a big part of that decision.

"He's heady. He's smart. He's that type of SAM linebacker that we're looking for," Nickerson said."He can blitz a little bit, play in space, can cover and is a versatile guy. The main thing is being able to handle the things that come with (being in the box). That's the most important thing. He's working hard, and he's gotten better as we've gone along. He's one of those guys who's taken a step forward."

Williams is the kind of longer, fast athlete Smith wants more of on his defense, but he also lacks any Big Ten experience. He will be thrown to the wolves -- or Tar Heels (UNC visits Champaign on Sept. 10) or Cornhuskers (Oct. 1 at Nebraska) -- soon.

And Illinois has other options if Williams falters.

Sophomore Julian Jones is receiving most of the second-team reps at strongside linebacker and is one of the better athletes at the position, but he missed part of spring ball due to suspension. Redshirt sophomore Tre Watson also is receiving reps at multiple linebacker spots and could be a factor at SAM.

"I'm just trying to be as good as they are, maybe a little better," Williams said. "I think between all three of us, we all compete with each other pretty well."

Said Nickerson: "In the end, we'll have our best three linebackers on the field."

Based on the overwhelming majority of first-string reps, Williams will be one of them.

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