A QB Grows Up: Juice Reflects On Season

The Fighting Illini football team played its best ball at the end of the season, winning its last four games. At the heart of that improvement was the play of sophomore quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams.

Offensive Coordinator and quarterback coach Mike Locksley praised Juice while presenting him with the Outstanding Offensive Back award at the Illini football team's annual banquet recently. He reminded everyone that Williams engineered three 8 minute drives in the last four games, which led the nation.

Juice was appreciative of that award and his selection as Honorable Mention All-Big Ten. They give him encouragement to set even higher goals.

"It's an honor to be in the same class with the great players in the conference. It's a great feeling, and it will give me something to work hard at to make not only all-conference but All-American."

If Big Ten coaches and media had rewarded those playing their best ball at the end of the season, Juice Williams was on par with any other quarterback in the league. But he isn't complaining because he understands the importance of playing well throughout the season.

"That's the odds of being a Big Ten quarterback. If you don't start off well, it doesn't give you much to base that (award) on. So really it just gives me something to work for and motivates me to play well at the start of the season as well as the end of the season. So in the offseason, I will try to get better each and every day and try to bring other guys along with me."

Juice showed improved confidence in the locker after the Michigan loss. He said he finally realized he was going to get hit whether he passed the ball or not, so he might as well stay in the pocket and hit his target. He agreed the Michigan game was the turning point of his season, although for a different reason.

"I would have to say the Michigan game. I made up my mind to just play ball and have fun. I was walking around not smiling. I was pressing and not happy with myself, but that's not my personality. I'm a cheerful guy, and when I was cheerful and smiling, things started to go well. When I started having fun with the game again, success came back. It's all about continuing to have fun, staying focused and playing with confidence.

"The more successful you are, the more relaxed you are. It's all about sticking to your business and not worrying about the odds and different rankings and statistics. Just go out and have fun."

Juice suffered a knee sprain midway in the season. He ran so well after that most people never realized how badly he was hurt.

"I sprained my MCL (medial collateral ligament). It's still not quite healed, but I'm just trying to gain confidence in it. I think I will still wear a brace just for precaution reasons. But it may take some more time, maybe before spring ball, and it's just something I'm trying not to rush. It affected my speed. The quickness was still there as I can make lateral moves to make guys miss, but it did set back my speed a little bit."

Juice also lost some of his speed from the rigors of being tackled 15-20 times a game for 12 straight weeks. All players develop bumps and bruises that take awhile to heal, so it is relative. But Williams realized how much speed he had lost when he returned to campus after Thanksgiving vacation.

"Definitely, I feel faster. Some of those games, I felt I was moving pretty good. But coming back after that week off, I felt like I was blazing. Actually, I'm outrunning some of the defenders now."

Quarterback at a major university is a highly complex activity that requires much training and repetition. Juice reflected on what he has learned this year.

"Just going out there and playing with confidence and eliminating all the negativity. All the negative comments I heard, and all the negative aspects of my game. I just had to focus on the positives and come out each and every day and try to get better.

"As a freshman, I was so hard on myself because I was used to being successful in high school. But I've now learned that failure's going to come in the course of a season or the course of a game. I decided to stay smiling and just continue to play. And just coming out and being a leader on the field has really helped this team out."

He has also learned much about the technical aspects of the game.

"I learned more about what other teams are going to do to me. Last year I was guessing a lot. But this year I understand coverages and I know what kind of alignments and blitz packages are coming. Studying the film and knowing exactly what's going on helps."

Juice Williams is the first to admit he is still a work in progress. He is eager to continue his growth progress.

"I want to continue to get better and get more accurate in the passing game. Accuracy is coming along very well, but I'm trying to come out and just perfect things each and every day. Quarterbacks can never be too accurate. So I want to get better until I'm no longer worrying about accuracy. You just try to feel more at home. And when you're at home, you're more comfortable in whatever you want to do. It's the same thing out on the football field."

The University of Southern California now looms on the horizon and is perhaps the Illini's toughest opponent to date. Juice has great respect for their program.

"I haven't looked at USC much yet, but what I have seen is those guys fly around to the ball. They want to hit you, they want to be successful, they're cheerful, and they're going to try to destroy us. We're just going to have to ignore all that and go out and play and have fun."

Win or lose, the Rose Bowl will always be a special opportunity for Juice Williams.

"It's a game I've always dreamed about playing in. After last season, it's a dream come true."

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