Juice Williams Has Been Better Than You Think

He is the most scrutinized Illinois football player in many years. And while some fans are concerned about Juice Williams the passer, Juice Williams the winner is showing Illini fans how sweet that can be. Has Juice been much better than some think? Without a doubt. And the numbers tell the story.

First, the stats, because everyone loves stats. Through one third of the regular season -- four games -- the true sophomore is completing 56 percent of his passes (44 of 79). That of itself is a pretty good increase for a guy who hit on fewer than 40 percent a year ago.

He also has thrown for 377 yards total and has a passer rating of 100.72. I have no idea what passer rating really means -- in fact, I'm not sure anyone does -- but I do know if you have far more touchdowns than interceptions it makes it go way up. Juice has three of each and still has a passer rating over 100. That means he must be doing something right. He also has rushed 38 times for 149 yards.

But forget all of those numbers. Here is the one that matters the most -- in games that Juice has started and finished, the Illini are 3-0. Now that is a pretty good number.

"This is his team," coach Ron Zook said. "I told Juice that. As I have said so many times, he just needs to go play and have fun and not worry about what everyone thinks of him. That is his biggest challenge.

"Believe me, we believe in him. And our players believe in him. That is very important."

In fact, therein lies the true greatness of Isiah "Juice" Williams -- the incredible difference he has made in the confidence level of this team. Along with linebacker J. Leman, he is the face of the program. And with Leman finishing his senior season, Juice will be the face for some time to come.

It was Juice that said I'm going to Illinois despite how downtrodden the program had been. That despite having offers from Ohio State, Tennessee, North Carolina and many others. None of that mattered to him. Ron Zook was turning around the program and Juice wanted to be part of it.

With him in the fold, others wanted to follow his talent and his authoritative personality. Players like Vontae Davis and Travon Bellamy and Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson came, in part, because Juice asked them to. We're on the verge of throwing a pretty big party here in the coming years was the message. Don't miss this.

If you begin to build it, they will come.

"An awful lot of guys wanted to come here and play with Juice," Zook said. "He and CJ (Chris James) and Vontae, they were some of our best recruiters."

Yet it wasn't going to be easy for Juice. He was coming to a program with so little talent around him, particularly at wide receiver. He was coming to a program accustomed to losing. And he was coming from a background that didn't allow countless passing camps and high tech offenses and personal coaches and all the things so many of today's top quarterback prospects have.

Further, he didn't come from a wealthy prep school high school program that brings in former NFL stars to coach and schedules August games on ESPN. He was just a kid from the city playing for the neighborhood school. Point is, when it came to running a sophisticated college offense, his learning curve was going to be steep.

"But he really worked at it," offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. "And he is a guy that can win games for you. Other quarterbacks, you just don't want them to lose it. Juice can go win it."

So far, Juice has been able to facillitate three straight wins. Illinois' only loss was the Missouri game in which he got hurt. Even in that game, the Illini were only down 7-6 when he went out (missed extra point) and were driving for a go ahead score.

All of that is not a coincidence. Don't get me wrong -- Illinois is winning with defense and the running game. The Illini are winning because they have more athletes than their opponents, a trend that will grow and grow. Zook is building a fast, athletic, deep talent base that will serve this program well for a long time.

But a big part of it is Juice. He calms teammates down on the sideline; he builds them up; they see his work ethic and they follow it. Every team needs a leader; he is the clear one here.

Against Indiana, Juice was not sharp as a passer -- completing only 13 of 28 passes. But when turned loose in a two-minute drill late in the half after the Hoosiers had cut the lead to 13-7, Williams went to work. He completed 5 of 6 passes on the ensuing touchdown drive, the only incompletion coming when he apparently had completed a sideline route to Rashard Mendenhall, but Rashard had one foot standing out of bounds. Juice then hit Mendenhall for the touchdown that would wind up being the winning points.

Most observers believed it was the most important three minutes of the game, cutting out Indiana's heart when they thought they were back in it. The Hoosiers never got closer than 13 the rest of the way.

Once again, Juice tried to fire balls too hard at times. Six times he had incompletions hit a receiver's hands (Once each with Kyle Hudson and Brian Gamble and four to Joe Morgan), but only one of those could be considered a drop. Mostly, he was just a hair off -- a little too high, a little too low, a little too hard, etc. And a near completion became a harmless incompletion.

Of his two interceptions, one was forgiveable -- the second play of the game he was looking for Benn on a deep post pattern and barely underthrew it and Tracy Porter made a fabulous play. The other pick, when he tried to force a third down pass in to Jacob Willis on the sideline while Illinois was in field goal position and Porter grabbed it again, was far more egregious.

Said Locksley: "A definite no-no." Overall, Juice completed only two of his first eight passes to start the game and then ended the game hitting only one of his last six. But in between, he was razor sharp, connecting on 10 of 14 in that stretch to win the game for the Illini.

And that is the bottom line -- Illinois won the game. Again. Three in a row. How long has that been? The Illini also went to 1-0 in the Big Ten. The last time they had the record was 1993. Juice was five years old.

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