With expectations higher, Williams' leadership more important to Illini

John Supinie

Rather than shying away from the expectations and a role as a team leader, Illinois junior quarterback Juice Williams wanted a promotion to field general this spring.

The face of the program since he became one of the first high-level commitments to Illinois under coach Ron Zook, Williams labored as a starter in his first year, then found extraordinary help from running back Rashard Mendenhall last fall as the Illini made a surprising run to the Rose Bowl.

With Mendenhall and linebacker J Leman preparing for the NFL draft, Williams understood that more is expected in his third year in the starting lineup. Illinois' passing offense ranked No. 109 in Division I last fall, and Williams' performance and ability to run the team are key variables as the Illini attempt to put together back-to-back bowl seasons for the first time in 16 years.

"There's a lot of stuff that goes into the passing game besides my arm and how well I throw the ball down the field,'' Williams said. "There are a lot of things that go into that, but a huge amount is definitely going to be on my shoulders.

"It's going out there to be a field general and move the team down the field. That covers everything: accuracy, pass percentage, precision, being a leader out there.''

Although there's still static from critics about more playing time for backup Eddie McGee, Illini coaches want Williams to grab the team by the chinstraps.

"I want him to run the team,'' said offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. "The (quarterback) position in general, whether this is your second or third year, is a natural leadership position. That's where we have to continue to bring him along.

"It's a leadership position. You have no choice but to be a leader. Three years into it, he's got to be a guy that's respected.''

If there's a question?

"He should be looking on my face,'' Locksley said. "When it's not going right, I wear my emotions on my sleeve.''

If Locksley is in the coaches’ box?

"That's what the phones are for. He can hear it in my voice,'' Locksley said.

This is still new to a guy whose previous experience as a leader was doing it by example, even in high school.

"It becomes easier,'' Williams said. "Trying to direct grown men up and down the field, you have to deal with egos. You have to deal with a lot of things. You don't want people in the locker room to dislike you. But as you go, you see the confidence people have. That makes it easier.''

Of course, it's easier to follow the leader if he's making plays. As a freshman, Williams started the final nine games and threw nine touchdowns with nine interceptions. He completed 39.5 percent of his passes in a year where staying healthy was probably as important as anything.

Last season, Williams passed for 1,743 yards with 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He completed 57.3 percent of his passes, but the Illini ranked last in the Big Ten in passing. He showed improvement down the stretch, including four touchdown passes in the upset at No. 1 Ohio State and a career-high 245 yards passing in the Rose Bowl loss to Southern Cal.

Williams is also a powerful runner -- remember his determination late in the game at Ohio State. But the passing game is where he needs more efficiency.

"I have to continue to increase that passing percentage,'' Williams said. "Last year in the high 50s, this year in the 60s. It comes with preparation, watching film, knowing who's where and which receiver can do what. I want to become more of a quarterback than just a thrower.''

The receiving corps doesn't look as thin as coach Ron Zook described it before spring drills began last week. Behind star Arrelious Benn, converted tight end Jeff Cumberland and senior Kyle Hudson, the Illini have options with game experience at receiver this fall. Sophomore Chris James is back from knee surgery, and the Illini have two blue-chippers arriving at the position this summer.

Yet Williams is the key.

"The big thing for him is decision-making,'' Locksley said. "He has to know where to go with the ball. The faster he can process where the ball should go, the easier it is to be accurate.

"If there is one area, it's pocket presence. If that first read or progression isn't there, he doesn't have to tuck the ball under his arm and take off running. Go to the second progression, check down, then think about scrambling.''

John Supinie can be reached at For more coverage, read the Illini Talk blog at and