Over the last few years, a few notable former Illini have been in and out and have shown up here and there for various events. Dave Diehl was in last summer for a practice. Arrelious Benn had come back once or twice. Other Illini made the trip here and there, but there never seemed to be a huge push to bring back some of the most notable and recognizable Illinois players from recent years.
This year, however, was different. In addition to a few other honorary coaches for the spring game, several former Illinois football players were spotted at the spring game. The list included several NFL players such as Jack Cornell, the aforementioned Martez Wilson, Tony Pashos, Michael Buchanan, A.J. Jenkins, and even recently-retired NFL running back Rashard Mendenhall. J Leman, a common sight on campus, was also walking around the field.
The turnout from alumni this year was far above and beyond that of past years, and much of that can be summed up into two words.
The former Illinois quarterback who led the Illini to a Rose Bowl appearance in 2007 has already taken the torch and run with it in his new position as director of high school and alumni relations for the football program.
There's always been something almost iconic about Juice Williams. A record-setting quarterback at Illinois, Juice was viewed as the prized recruit who turned things around not only in Chicago, but with the program in general. Now, he faces a similar challenge from the other side, tasked with making the slogan "Our State, Our Team" a reality.
I'll say, I've talked to several recruits who bring up Williams when asked about Illinois. He's one of the first guys that comes to mind for several fans when talking about 21st century Illinois football, and he's putting that notoriety to good use.
Speaking with several of the former Illinois players who were at the game, they mostly gave the same story.
"Juice called me up and said I should come."
"I talked to Juice about coming back"
"Juice wanted to get a lot of us back here"
Rashard Mendenhall is another one of those guys who really hasn't been back since he graduated, but Juice convinced him to come back, too.
Perhaps the most telling of Juice's targets was Martez Wilson. The former Illini linebacker, now with the Dallas Cowboys, was on the fence about making his first return trip to Illinois since leaving at the conclusion of his college career. But Williams was able to get Wilson back on campus and ensured that his welcome was warm.
"I came back to talk to the kids, to see what my college has as far as talent and be like a brother to them," he said, "but it means a lot having Juice talking to us and wishing us luck on Sundays and things like that. Juice and I are both guys from inner-city Chicago. To see us all reunited again and have that love it feels really good."
Though Williams and several of his former teammates went their separate ways, that didn't stop Williams from doing what he does best, and that's maintaining relationships. One of the biggest reasons Wilson decided to come back was the intentionality and closeness he has with Williams. According to Wilson, that unity and connection is something that he's been looking for.
"Juice and I consistently talked. I liked that. It's been a real friendship since freshman year," Wilson said. "I definitely like to see Juice emphasizing Chicago. Not only as a former player and alumni, Juice is doing a great job keeping us connected to our alma mater. He's doing a lot to restore that unity. He's bringing a lot of the former players back now just like he brought a lot of us here back in college and doing it on a different scale."
Williams had a lasting impact on the Illinois program during his playing days, but his personality has enabled him to prolong that impact and has led him to an opportunity to continue to define his legacy as an Illini.
"I think everyone loves him and still knows who he is," Wilson said. "He had a tremendous impact here and the Illini family definitely loves Juice Williams, and it's a great place for him."
This is just the beginning. Williams' influence reaches far and wide with both recruits and alumni. If he continues to embrace his role, it is likely that several more former Illini will be spotted on campus in the years to come. Recruits have taken notice. Alumni have taken notice.
Juice is back. It may be under different circumstances, but it seems like he's still the same Juice Williams having the same Juice Williams Effect that he did almost ten years ago.