Illinois quarterback Juice Williams is beginning his fourth year at the helm. He is close to breaking the school's all-time total offense record, and he has an outside chance of breaking the Big 10 record. He has progressed far from his days as a raw freshman.
And yet, there are still questions. He has a rocket arm, but his pass completion percentage needs improvement. He scares people with his ability to run the ball, but he sometimes scrambles from the pocket too soon to see open receivers. Being tagged with an accuracy problem inspires Williams to overcome it.
"It gives me something to work on. Obviously, they think there's something I'm not doing right. I want to prove them wrong."
Williams is a tremendous competitor, but he sometimes puts too much pressure on himself. As a sophomore, he learned to relax and trust his teammates, and he led the Illini to the Rose Bowl. Last year, without an established running attack and an injured offensive line, he tried to win games by himself. He plays worse when his strength of will drowns his love of the game.
Williams is smiling more this season thanks to a bevy of skill people surrounding him.
"Definitely. Last year, I kind of put a little bit on myself. I said I had to be the guy to go out there and make plays. It was true, but I don't think I should have put that much pressure on myself.
"This year, we've got a lot more athletes. We've got guys with more experience, the kind to take pressure off myself. I'll give it to those guys and watch them go out and make plays."
The 6'-2", 240 pounder agrees he plays better when he isn't trying to force things.
"Absolutely. I have a smile on my face, and I'm having fun. That's where I want to stay at."
Sometimes, a player can simply try too hard. Williams is an example of that. Through his first three seasons, he was trying to live up to peoples' expectations, trying to prove a Chicago Public Leaguer could excel at quarterback, and he was trying to win on the biggest stages possible.
Coach Ron Zook even labeled him the Dee Brown of Illini football. Brown was the poster boy of Illini basketball during their magical 2004-2005 run to the NCAA championship game. Williams embraced that thought, but it was difficult goal to reach.
"Absolutely. But you try to get away from that thought. You almost think it isn't possible. Dee Brown's the face of the Illini Nation on the basketball side, so it would be very hard to be mentioned with his name. But I've been blessed to get to the point where I am today."
For all his passing and rushing yardage and proximity to a number of records, Williams sets only one personal goal.
"Win, win, win. I try not to set individual goals. My priority is to win. We had some good moments the last couple years. But obviously, this is my last year, and I want to go out there and get a W. I'm gonna attack each game like it's my last and see what happens at the end."
Williams is always looking for ways to improve his game. Quarterback at a major university is a lifestyle, and Williams thinks football all the time. Among his opportunities this summer was serving as a counselor at the Elite 11 Camp in California.
"I was at the camp my senior year of high school and got invited back. It's a lot of fun. It's a change of surroundings. The West Coast is beautiful with nice weather. You've got the ocean right around the corner from you. It was a great opportunity to meet some of the highly rated quarterbacks in college football."
Besides helping instruct the top eleven high school quarterbacks in the country, he could pick the brains of coaches and other great college quarterbacks working there.
"Definitely. The more people you talk to, the more experience you get, the more you learn. You can never learn too much playing this game. As often as I can, I try to learn as much as possible to be a better quarterback."
One of the high school signal callers in attendance was Chandler Whitmer, the Illinois commitment from Downers Grove South. Williams is impressed.
"He's a great guy with a great arm, and he's very accurate with it. His best quality is he listens and is very coachable. He takes what you teach and tries to go out there and do it. That will take him a long way."
Illinois will have a new quarterback at the helm next year, but Williams is convinced the position is in good hands.
"Eddie (McGee) has got one year left. You've got Nathan Scheelhaase, Jake Charest, and Chandler coming in. You've still got a great stable of quarterbacks here."
All quarterbacks take a tremendous pounding over a long season, especially running quarterbacks. Williams gets beat up, but he keeps coming back for more.
"Quarterback is tough, especially when you do the type of running I do. But I love it. At the time, I don't love waking up sore. But if you're not banged up, your jersey all torn and dirty, you feel like you haven't done enough that game. As I look back on it, I wouldn't have it any other way."
Last year, Williams could hardly walk toward the end of the season. There was minimal quarterback depth, so he had to keep playing regardless. Now there is a full complement of quarterbacks on board, and backup Eddie McGee is finally maturing into a quality replacement. Would it help him to sit out a series here or there?
"Eddie could be a starter. He could definitely go out there and lead this team to greatness. It's kind of unfortunate we play the same position, but it's hard to have two quarterbacks in at one time.
"Naw, I'll be all right. I was pretty banged up when we played Iowa, but me being physically ready for the season allowed me to go out there. Unless I'm seriously injured, I'll be out there playing."
You would expect no less from a competitor like Williams. He has also taken on more of a leadership role this year, a sign of his continued development.
"As a four year starter, I'm looked upon to be a coach of the team. Take the responsibility to make sure guys are going to class and doing all the things they need to do."
Williams wants to make his final year his best one so he can go out with a blaze of glory.
"Coach is very excited about this year and this group of guys, probably moreso than the last two seasons. This year is very important. We want to go out there and defend Coach Zook, to let everyone know that it wasn't a fluke when we went to the Rose Bowl.
"We have tremendous talent here, and we have great support. It's all about how we attack each Saturday. If we wake up on the wrong side of the bed or not ready to go, we can end up with the same type of season. But I'm very excited about this year. Hopefully, we can come out and take care of business."