Juice, Rashard Key to the Illini Backfield

The key to the Illini backfield? Did you really have to ask? But there really are two key guys --and Juice Williams and Rashard Mendenhall really understand that. How they play this year will have everything to do with how far Illinois goes. And both are guys are ready for the challenge -- our final position previews covers it.

Funny, isn't it? A team can be loaded at the line of scrimmage – where it really matters in football, can have nasty linebackers and speedy defensive backs, but folks really want to know about the guys they watch with the ball.

Throwing it, running with it, scoring. Meaning our final position preview – the offensive backfield, is so, so critical to the Illini in this upcoming season.

With that, we start, obviously, with the most heralded, watched, talked about and closely scrutinized player to come to Champaign in many, many years. And how Isiah "Juice" Williams goes, for sure, the Illini will follow.

QUARTERBACK – Juice Williams was another outstanding athlete when he played in the Chicago Public League, which sends so many recruits to various schools. But there was something about this guy – as a quarterback, not just an athlete – that got the attention of Ron Zook the first time he saw him.

I still remember all the attention being paid to Demetrius Jones, alias Double, another Public League quarterback, and asking Zook if he was going to get him. His response: "Maybe, but there is quarterback we like better. Name is Isiah Williams. He is the one we have to get."

The rest is history, as is the freshman season Juice Williams (6-2, 223). He learned, he got pummeled, he got criticized, he tried and he cried and he battled. And in the end, he was much better for it. And Illinois is much better for it.

Obviously, his low completion percentage and the struggles of the Illini passing game were all the talk. Some thought he threw it too hard; others thought he wasn't accurate enough. Coaches believed a lot of it was on the receivers, who dropped too many passes. Regardless, he passing game struggled.

So will it improve?

"No doubt in my mind," Zook told me. "He will be so much better this year you won't recognize him."

Can he get to where he throws the ball not so hard?

"That isn't really the issue," offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. "The guys will learn to adjust to that. The accuracy is where he has to get better. And he will."

What can not ever be lost, though, is what a weapon this guy is. Williams is a great, great runner – dodging tacklers at times, making them miss at times, bowling them over like a mack truck at times. Although he is listed at 223, he probably is in the 230s and will play at that weight. Tackling him is like tackling P. J. Hill from Wisconsin or T. J. Duckett from his Michigan State days – you better bring your lunch.

So although Illinois coaches want him to develop more comfort in the pocket, to not take off and run if he doesn't have to, there is no denying what he can do when he does. Which means 10 times per game or so, a Juice ran can impact a game.

"We don't want him to lose the ability to do that," Locksley told me. "Sometimes, we do want him to just take off and run."

The other factor about Juice that does not get enough attention is that he is a natural leader. Teammates gravitate to him. And his humble yet affable, driven persona is perfect for that. If the completion percentage comes up over 50 percent, he reduces turnovers as he surely will do as he gets older, this guy can be one of the great ones. And nobody debates that.

Redshirt freshman Eddie McGee (6-4, 200) will be the backup, followed by true freshman Phil Haig (6-3 195). Both will be good quarterbacks in time. Neither have played a down and aren't ready yet. Juice has to stay healthy.

RUNNING BACK: Another heralded recruit waits for his breakout year here, too, in junior Rashard Mendenhall (5-11, 224), who may have the best combination of size and speed as any running back in the nation. Know this, Rashard is a bruising runner who is very, very fast. That matters.

Obviously, the problem for Mendenhall has been taking care of the football. Not fumbling has been the absolute priority throughout the off-season for Rashard, who has vowed to hold it high and tight, as running backs coach Reggie Mitchell has been preaching, preaching, preaching. High and tight. High and tight. High and tight.

If he does, and if he stays healthy, then look out. The backups likely will be two signees – Daniel Dufrene from the junior college ranks and freshman Troy Pollard. Both are very good, but different. Dufrene is more of a slasher with breakways speed. Pollard is a low center of gravity guy who always makes the first guy miss, a guy cut in the Emmitt Smith, Travis Henry mold.

Another player expected to factor here was Derius Hodge, another true freshman who was expected to be the sleeper of the Illinois class. Coaches were very excited about Hodge but he didn't qualify academically and is in prep school. He will be in Champaign in time, hopefully January.

Finally, don't be surprised to see Rashard Mendenhall's brother Walter Mendenhall (6-0, 216) factor here as well. Not nearly as talented as his kid brother, Walter has been a trooper, staying the course and waiting for an opportunity.

FULLBACK: This position isn't often used by primarily spread teams, but in senior Russ Weil (6-0, 241), Illinois certainly has the bruising blocker the position calls for. And the move of Rakheem Smith (6-0, 250) to this spot is intriguing as well. Not sure it will stick, but if it does, this guy can plow some linebackers as well.

Overall, Illinois will be good at running back, mainly because of the presence of Rashard Mendenhall. His health is critical.

ZOOK QUOTE: "We need Rashard and he needs to hang on to the ball. But those young guys are going to play. We told them that when we recruited them."

FRANGIE TAKE: Mendenhall is very, very good. I can't wait to see games in which he gets it 20-25 times per game because he is the kind of guy that will break a few of those. And that changes games. Could have really used Hodge, who I'm told is fantastic. But the other new guys are very good players who sort of got forgotten after Hodge was signed late and people started seeing his tape. But Dufrene and Pollard will help.

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