Juice Williams was expected to make his senior season his best. A certainty to become the all-time total yardage leader at Illinois, some thought he might challenge the all-time Big 10 record and lead the Illini to a major bowl game. Instead, the Illini are in a 1-6 tailspin, and Williams is struggling to keep his starting role.
In a surprise against Purdue, Williams shared time with redshirt freshman Jacob Charest. With Charest showing poise in the pocket and an ability to find downfield receivers, he will continue to share time with Williams.
There is no way Williams thought this season would go so badly for him and the Illini team.
"My senior year, I never expected this. Not just from an individual standpoint but for the team. It's tough waking up in the morning, and it's back to reality. It seems like a dream, like at some point I will wake up. But I still think we can get this thing turned around and have a good last half of the season."
As a team leader, it is hard to maintain respect from teammates and encourage improved play when you are mired in a slump.
"Definitely, especially when things aren't going your way and you kind of struggle. Being a leader, it kind of makes it harder to step up and be more vocal when you're struggling yourself. It's something that has to be done."
The critics have been numerous. The quarterback position is the most visible one on any football team, and he must bear the brunt of the blame for offensive problems. Fortunately, Williams has encountered a few supporters along the way.
"A few classmates. There are a few die-hard Illini fans who good or bad are always gonna be supportive. Normally, there's a bunch of guys that are gonna be with the team no matter what the results are. That's always a good feeling to have."
He has also received positive input from former teammates including Pittsburgh Steeler running back Rashard Mendenhall.
"Rashard was texting me Thursday night, Friday night. He was telling me to keep my head up, positive things like that."
Speaking Monday, Williams talked about how one must continue to look for positives to reverse negative trends.
"It's tough to do, but you have to think every day is a fresh start, something you can build on. We had a pretty good practice today, so that's something we can build on. Come Saturday, we've just got to execute."
One advantage for Williams is the opponent Saturday. He has fond memories of his record-breaking performance at Michigan's Big House last year.
"It's always fun to watch. We actually were watching clips from the game today as a motivational thing, trying to get us prepared and letting us know we can do the same thing if we come together, play hard and execute."
After a stellar four-year career, it is difficult for Williams to face questions about the quality of his competitor Charest. But he hasn't given up on remaining the top gun.
"First of all, I think I'll be in there. And I'm pretty sure Jake can come in. We've been working on things to get him prepared. Whatever it takes. I've been telling everybody all week, if I'm slipping up of course I want somebody coming in. Last week was his first collegiate game. So I expect his time to increase."
He was impressed with Charest's poise in the pocket in his first-ever action.
"Much better than I was. He threw the ball very well. Four years ago, I could never have imagined throwing the ball as well as he has."
Williams has handled adversity extremely well this year. Center Eric Block, who has a fairly intimate relationship with Illini quarterbacks, spoke in almost reverential tones about Williams' response to sharing his job.
"Juice is definitely gonna take this the right way. He's a team player, first and foremost. He's just doing whatever he can to help the team. He's a class act, and he has been since day 1. There's not gonna be any griping from Juice. He's an upbeat guy. He's always trying to get the guys up and keep everybody excited."
Coach Ron Zook spoke along similar lines.
"I mean this, if I had a son, I would want my son to be on this team if no other reason than to see how he's handling it. It's easy to point fingers, but it's unbelievable the way the guy handles it. To me, no one saw this thing coming and obviously he didn't either. The way he's handled it, I'm not sure a lot of adults could handle it.
"I had a long talk with Juice yesterday. Juice wants to win. He's pulling his hair out. The biggest thing we have to do with Juice is that everybody's pounding on him and he has to somehow separate that stuff.
"He's done it before. It's a confidence issue. If you've ever had your confidence shaken at anything you've ever done, he has to overcome that stuff, and that's something we as a coaching staff have to help him do. He's done it before and he can do it again, and it's our job to get him to do it again."
Jake Charest discusses his role in part 2.