Quarterback Eddie McGee has long been the bridesmaid at Illinois. Arriving from Washington, D.C., in the same class with Juice Williams, he assumed the backup role and has seldom seen the field. Now a junior, he gets his first starting assignment as the Illini look for a catalyst to jumpstart its stagnant offense.
Illinois coach Ron Zook did not make the decision lightly. He has seen Williams lead the Illini to the Rose Bowl in 2007 and become the all-time total offense leader. Williams has slumped since the 2008 Michigan game, and Zook felt a change was essential for the team and its fans. But the decision did not come without considerable anguish.
"You have children? It's hard. We owe this to the University of Illinois, the Illini Nation and this football program. Sometimes you have to make decisions you don't necessarily want to make. It's like in baseball, trying to put in a different pitcher or basketball, trying to put in a different guy."
Zook is not giving up on his team or this season. He would not make the change if he didn't have confidence in Mcgee.
"Eddie's a good player, and he's played a lot of football around here as well. You've seen him for the most part coming off the bench. We'd like to see how he does starting."
The job now belongs to McGee. Zook does not want McGee worrying about being taken out after a mistake.
"I never wanted Juice looking over his shoulder, and I don't want Eddie looking over his shoulder. I don't think you can have Eddie worrying about if something happens wrong. On the same token, I think you will see Juice prepared for this game just like you would any other game."
McGee plans to approach the Michigan State game Saturday with confidence.
"I'm just gonna take the ball and run with it. I'm not gonna look over my shoulder or look back. My main goal is to win, so there's no need for me to look back. If I do, it's gonna deter my performance on the field."
So what did McGee think when first told about the change?
"He called me into his office. I had no idea what he was calling me in for. Honestly, that was the last thing on my mind because Juice is a great player. He's the man, the quarterback.
"When he told me, I was in shock. But at the same time, I was excited. I knew I had the ability, and my teammates believe in me as well. Coach Zook has confidence in me."
McGee and Williams have become extremely close these last four years. It was tough for both of them to hear the news.
"I talked to Juice right after. He was still in the stadium, so I met up with him. Me and Juice are still best friends. Nothing has changed with our relationship. He still helps me watch tape, the same thing we've always been doing. He's gonna help me like I help him on the sidelines during a game.
"There was no reason to say 'no hard feelings' because we knew. There's never no hard feelings between me and Juice, no matter what. He's like my brother. If anything goes wrong, he expects me to step up. And I owe him that, to step up for him and his team, and myself."
McGee had accepted his backup role, so it will be an adjustment for him as well.
"My sophomore year, when we were switching, I always knew that Juice was the quarterback. I respected that and understood that. So I never expected for me to get more playing time or for him to get any less.
"Juice is a great athlete. He does a lot of great things that I or any other quarterback probably couldn't do. And I feel I could do some things that any other quarterback could not do."
Over the years, McGee has seen his share of playing time. He played all but one offensive play in the Illinois State game after Williams went out with injury, and he led them to victory. As Zook might say, 'This isn't his first rodeo.'
"Having experience helps," McGee reminds. "We're facing Michigan State, and it's a great opponent. I have a great challenge ahead of me. I'll do the best I can to go out there and get the win.
"My expectation is to move the ball down the field and score. My only focus is to put points on the board and help the team get a win. Any time you get experience on the field, I feel it is an extra notch on your belt to help you for the next game or next year."
His experience allows him to relax and stay confident during a game. He knows the value of keeping his same practice and game routine and not trying to do too much in practice or get too hyper before game time.
"I'm not gonna try to get too focused. I feel if I try to get too focused, I will overcompensate or overplay. I'll just try to be as normal as I can.
"When I go in, my only focus is to move the ball down the field. I don't feel the pressure because I prepare well in practice. So when I'm in the game, I don't think there's any type of pressure whether I'm coming in for Juice or starting."
McGee has no doubt Williams will be there for him on the sideline Saturday when each offensive possession ends.
"Most definitely. When I come straight off the field after a series, he'll be in my ear saying, 'This is going on. Look for this.' Just like I would do when he was on the field."