Illinois quarterback Juice Williams is on line to become the all-time total yardage leader in Illini football history. Yet many fans expected even more, especially after Juice led the Illini to the Rose Bowl in 2007. Some even hoped he would lose his job over his occasionally imperfect play.
Fortunately, he is too strong mentally to let a little misfortune set back his development. In three years, he has progressed from being a skittish rookie with poor mechanics and no knowledge of the complexities of the college game to a confident leader. He has improved his pass completion percentage each year, and he has grown as a person.
Now, Williams speaks about his team rather than himself. He has strong views on what happened to cause a losing season last fall.
"In my opinion, with the Rose Bowl and spring ball being so close together, a lot of guys were kind of high off the Rose Bowl. I don't think we worked as hard. We didn't have the mindset to go be killers out there. We kind of laid back a little bit, and it showed with our record.
"This year is completely different. The guys who were here last year and are still around this year know what it feels like to be at home at Christmas when we know we should be somewhere playing. That's something we want to avoid, and it all starts with attitude this spring, and that leads into the season."
Of course, there's no guarantee every player on the team is willing to put out maximum effort to produce a winning season. But as a senior leader, Williams is doing what he can to make it happen.
"All you can do is continue to preach it. You use last year as an example. You be sure to tell those guys the way to go. I've been through tough times even before college. I've been on not so great teams all my life.
"I can tell a good team when I see one. That's the type of team we had the Rose Bowl year. The mindset's completely different because we wanted it. We have to get that mentality back."
The Chicago Vocational star has seen promising signs of a turnaround through winter conditioning and spring ball.
"We're definitely going in the right direction. Guys are more in tune. The selfishness has gone away. Guys care about what they do and take mistakes to heart.
"They want to come out here and get better every day. They want to win their one-on-one matches every day offensively and defensively. So when you have that kind of competition with your team not to ever get beat, you're gonna have a good team."
Illini receivers are the strength of the team, and they expect to be the beneficiaries of Williams' improved touch and accuracy on his passes. Williams was asked specifically about Chris Duvalt, but he preferred to include the whole group.
"Duvalt is one of many. You've got (Jarred) Fayson, you've got (Jeff) Cumberland, you've got Rejus (Arrelious Benn), you've got Oh-Oh (Michael Hoomanawanui). You've got so many weapons out there, he's just one of many.
"He (Duvalt) does a great job of getting open. He has confidence in his hands. You can't do anything but love a guy with confidence. He goes out there and makes plays.
"They (coaches) do a great job of putting playmakers in there. Obviously, when we get into the season all these guys aren't gonna be around. Somebody might get nicked up here and there. Guys might get tired. So everybody will get the opportunity to show their talent. Some might not get as much as others right away. But over time things might start to open up for them."
Again speaking for the whole team, Williams praised the Illini defense's effort throughout spring ball.
"They're getting better. Our offense may be a little ahead of our defense right now, but those guys are competitors too. They got tired of getting beat up the first two weeks, and they bounced back great.
"When those guys put the pads on, they started hitting harder, breaking up passes. So when we have a team like that that's so competitive, they don't want to lose. You can't do anything but expect great things from them."
Illinois has one of its toughest schedules this fall, but Williams refused to be trapped by notions of it being a schedule for failure. He believes the team is much better than it showed last year. If so, perhaps the schedule won't seem so imposing.
"You can't really base the schedule on what you saw last year. We were in the Rose Bowl, and look what we did this past year. Going off last year's hype, it's good to talk about it and make all these predictions and assumptions. But when you put the pads on for a new season, it's a totally different thing.
"We're gonna go out there, whether its the top team in the country or the last team in the country, and we're gonna hit you hard. We're gonna be efficient offensively and do our thing."
Whether quotes like these prove Williams' continuing maturity to Illini fans, Coach Ron Zook has seen it for himself.
"I don't think there's any question Juice has a chance to be a pretty good football player. The thing that's great about him is he's a very humble guy. They know he's a leader. The maturity he's developed in terms of wanting to be in that position is exciting too."