Senior quarterback Juice Williams has improved every year. Of course, he was extremely raw when he arrived on campus, so there was plenty of room for improvement. While he may not be the prototypical quarterback, the hard-working, dedicated athlete with the powerful arm and exciting running ability could still go down as the all-time total offense record holder at Illinois.
Williams was blamed for his turnovers last year, and with good reason. He threw too many interceptions, although some were catchable balls that were tipped to opponents. And he had the ball stripped from his grasp too often, usually as he waited in the pocket for a preferred receiver to get open.
Fans remember these mistakes and assume the worst will follow Williams this year also. But there are indications Williams will be able to reduce his turnovers markedly this year.
One, he learned a great deal last year. He discovered he couldn't force the action and expect success. He must take with the defense gives him, trust all his receivers equally, and allow his playmakers to help him under pressure. He tried to put the team on his broad shoulders last year, and it didn't always work well. Hopefully, he won't make the same mistakes again.
Two, he has a new offensive coordinator and quarterback coach to give him a more expansive awareness of the quarterback position and the entire offense. It remains to be seen whether new Offensive Coordinator Mike Schultz is a more proficient play-caller than his predecessor, but he will emphasize things Williams can do well.
Last year's offense made many big plays, but it had problems sustaining long drives. Williams wants to score quickly, but moving the chains consistently is more important. Defenses may prevent the quick-hitter, and the Illini offense needs to keep its defense off the field. Schultz emphasized the short passing game in the spring, and it will likely be an important part of the offense this fall.
If Williams can adapt, and it appears he can, his completion percentages will go up, and so will his chances of victory. With a number of big-play receivers ready to help, Williams will always be able to get the big yardage plays. But if he can swing the ball to his backs and hit the tight end over the middle, he can keep defenses honest.
Williams is a talented option quarterback who can tear up a defense with his running ability and knowledge of when to hit the pitch man. Halfway through last season, his body was so banged up that an all-out running assault was impossible for him. If he can stay healthy, his threat as both a runner and passer can keep the defense on its heels.
Another problem last year was moving the ball in the red zone. Part of this was inconsistency, and part was a lack of a guaranteed running threat. Daniel Dufrene continues to gain strength, but he lacks lower leg power and has trouble driving through piles for tough yardage. Scatback Troy Pollard was not 100% all year, and freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure were both inexperienced and overweight.
Fullback is an unsung position on the team because it isn't used every down. In 2007, Russ Weil opened many holes for Rashard Mendenhall, but his graduation left a big void. Rahkeem Smith wasn't consistently successful replacing Weil, so walkon freshman Zach Becker was tried there.
A powerful blocking fullback is essential in short yardage. So are the tight ends. The Illini had Michael Hoomanawanui at tight end, and he is an outstanding blocker. But his complement in a two-tight end offense was true freshman Hubie Graham. The lack of depth at fullback and tight end hurt the Illini last year.
The offensive line was also a big problem for the Illini last fall. Injuries devastated the group, forcing two true freshmen to play extensive minutes and limiting the play of a couple other starters.
Once opponents realized the Illini weakness, they blitzed repeatedly. This caused a number of turnovers. More than that, defenders put a beating on Williams, making him more skittish in the pocket. Pass percentages went down as more passes were forced. And the entire offense lost confidence, knowing they has a weakness they couldn't overcome.
Wide receiver was a strength of the team last year, but even those players had problems at times. Arrelious Benn is a superstar and proved it. But he was so good he became a marked man. Williams looked for him extensively and tried to force it to him despite constant double teams.
Other receivers were either inconsistent or too young to take the pressure off Benn. Jeff Cumberland has not yet reached the potential expected of him despite his size and speed. Former offensive coordinator Mike Locksley didn't trust Cumberland, keeping him on the bench in key situations.
Former cornerback Chris Duvalt was spectacular spring 2008, but he struggled through part of the fall. Freshmen A.J. Jenkins and Fred Sykes played extensively last fall, but both were predictably inconsistent. Jenkins picked it up late in the year with hard work and dedication. The Illini needed him the whole year.
In part two, we will discuss the improvements made since last fall that could turn the Illini offense into a juggernaut.