If Dee Brown was at one time the poster boy for Illini basketball, Juice Williams has become the poster boy for Illini football. He has a charismatic personality that attracts attention wherever he goes. High school prospects know him and wish to meet him. The reason why is simple -- as both a football player and person, Juice Williams is special.
Isiah "Juice" Williams was a high school All-American out of Chicago Vocational, and that talent propelled him into a starting spot at quarterback for the Fighting Illini football team as a true freshman last fall. Juice passed for 1,489 yards and ran for another 576 yards, and his dynamic passing and running potential make him a prime candidate for future stardom.
In fact, he already holds the Illini career record for most touchdown passes over 65 yards, completing three overall and two in one game. He has an extremely strong arm, runs with both quickness and determination, and is a smart, natural leader. Juice has all the tools to be an outstanding quarterback in college and perhaps someday in the pros.
Of course, the Big Ten is a powerful football conference that loves to pressure rookie quarterbacks, and Juice got a real baptism of fire this last fall. He often had to run for his life as blocking broke down in front of him, and his passing statistics suffered in part from drops by his receivers. By the end of the season, Juice needed time to rejuvenate before beginning preparations for the 2007 season. How long did that process take?
"Oh, about two weeks," he said in an interview this week. "Three weeks maximum into the offseason, just relaxing, getting off my feet, taking a break from the football season before starting to prepare for the upcoming season."
Juice agreed that opponents love to go after rookies. It had to be difficult for a freshman quarterback to learn and operate a complex offense while being attacked from all sides. Did he hit a wall during the year or begin to have blitz nightmares?
"It was pretty tough," he admitted. "I really don't think it was to the point I hit a wall. It was more like, things were becoming more familiar to me. I was seeing some of the things from other teams and I started picking up on them toward the end of the season. But I have an opportunity to perfect it now."
Did he have second thoughts about what he did during a game once he could reflect on it?
"Yeah, I always have that feeling when watching the games afterward. I wonder why I did this, why I threw that pass, I should have given the ball here, but those are just mistakes I have to learn. This summer I just have to get back into the film room. After watching and studying the games, I realize the value of film study. I see the value of how film study can help my game. The more I watch film the better a student I become. Everything has slowed down tremendously for me now."
Major college defenses are highly complex, and they can disguise their coverages and blitz packages. What has Juice learned to help him against creative opponents?
"Yeah, they do that pretty well. It's just knowing my hot routes, recognizing the blitzes and getting the ball to the right receivers."
What were the hardest things for him to learn as freshman quarterback?
"Pretty much just the concept of each route, trying to figure out what we are trying to establish with each play. Because every play is designed to pick on a certain part of the defense. Knowing each play, understanding the concept of what Coach (Mike Locksley, the offensive coordinator) is trying to do when he calls each play."
Juice agreed the more you experience college football, the better you will play. Has his early experience given him more confidence?
"Definitely, playing as a freshman is one of the best things I could have done, coming to this university and getting that game experience under my belt. The transformation from my freshman year to my sophomore year is going to be big. I feel tremendously confident, 100 times better than last fall. Now, Coach Locksley and I can sit down and talk about coverages. I feel so confident now because I know where to put the ball so it is just a matter of seeing coverages, staying relaxed and making the right decisions."
Juice absorbed many huge hits last season. Besides being sacked by 300-pound defensive linemen, he also ran the ball frequently. All defenses love to tackle quarterbacks in the hope of ending their day prematurely, so the more he ran, the more punishment he received. How long after each game did it take him to recover from all the bruises?
"A day, maybe," he said. "Some of the hits I took were pretty hard, but the trainers fixed me up pretty good."
Juice now realizes the value of protecting his body. After all, he cannot help the Illini win if injured. Does he plan to do more sliding to prevent hard tackles in future games?
"Yes, definitely in situations where I have nowhere else to go. Just to save my body and complete my career here. Hopefully, I won't have to run as much and can just sit back in the pocket."
Rashard Mendenhall has been running really well this spring, so hopefully he can take some of the pressure off Juice.
"Yes, he had an amazing run today," Juice said of a Mendenhall gem last week. "He is running hard, and he has gotten bigger. And he has gotten smarter as well, like when to make certain cuts. He's just doing his job."
The combination of school work and his responsibilities as a leader on the football team keep Juice extremely busy. And yet, he also helps with recruiting.
"It's always fun to do that. Getting together with some of the youngsters who were in my position. It's kind of fun to see how they react, how they like the university."
If the Illini keep recruiting top players, is a National Championship the goal?
It is always a pleasure to visit with Juice Williams. His bright smile, relaxed confidence and enthusiasm for the future of Illini football make it easy to like him and root for him. Clearly, he has the potential to be among the best quarterbacks ever to play at Illinois. If he continues to learn and grow, the sky is the limit.