Williams is man of the house -- and Illini locker room
Life has changed for Illinois junior quarterback Juice Williams since that upset at top-ranked Ohio State in November and a Rose Bowl appearance in January.
He became a family man. Instead of nights out with teammates, Williams returns to a residence he shares with longtime girlfriend Chez Chambers and their 11-month-old daughter, La-Chez (pronounced La-Shay). When Chambers (an Illinois sophomore and, like Williams, a Chicago Vocational High School graduate) is busy, Williams doesn't shy away from duties such as changing the diaper.
"I'm pretty good,'' Williams said. "I'm still learning, just like football. Practice makes perfect, though. If I fumble my daughter, it's worse than (losing) a turnover.
"It's one of the best things that could happen. It's eliminated some of things I would have done. If (La-Chez) isn't around, I'd probably be out more late at night, not going around family as much. She really motivates me. It's another mouth to feed. The success I have in my life is going to dictate her future. Me being able to go to the next level and the success I have there will affect her. I want to put her in the best situation possible.''
Just as Juice Williams is the man of the house, he's the main man in the locker room this fall, when Illinois attempts to back up a surprising 9-4 record overall last season, a 6-2 mark in the Big Ten Conference and the Illini's first Rose Bowl appearance in 24 years.
With running back Rashard Mendenhall and linebacker J Leman busy starting NFL careers, the Illini became Williams' team. Not only must Williams improve as a passer to take the burden off a rushing offense that doesn't have a Mendenhall-type runner, he's now asked to serve as a team leader.
"That's what coach is really trying to instill in me,'' Williams said. "This is my team. This is my year. That's an added role for myself to go out there and be a leader and think of this team as my team. I could see it happen with some of the guys leaving last year.
"During spring ball, I felt myself becoming more of a leader. People looked to me. When that happens, people pretty much tell you this is your team.''
Put the debate over any quarterback controversy between Williams and backup Eddie McGee to rest. Coach Ron Zook and the Illini go as Williams goes, beginning with the season opener Aug. 30 against Missouri at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
"We kept a lot of pressure off him in the last two years,'' Zook said. "I said, 'Juice, it's time for you to take it over.' It is his team. It is his offense. He's such a humble kid. He doesn't want to be in the limelight. Sometimes you have to push him to be that.
"Now he really likes taking hold of the pieces. He wanted to be Juice and getting his job down. Now he likes the idea of helping this football team win.''
Behind Mendenhall's single-season school rushing records of 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns, Illinois led the Big Ten and ranked fifth nationally in rushing with 256.8 yards. With a committee of running backs with little experience, it's obvious that Williams and the passing game -- ranked No. 109 among 119 Division I teams last season while averaging 168.2 yards -- must improve and pick up the slack.
After connecting on 39 percent of his passes as a freshman trying not to be overwhelmed, Williams' improved to 57 percent last season. He boosted the Illini offense and his reputation with a three-game stretch to finish the regular season where he threw for 567 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. He completed 62 percent during the span.
"Last year, we finished toward the bottom of the nation in passing,'' Williams said. "Thank God for Rashard Mendenhall. He carried the team a lot. We have to the ball up when we need it most this year. I don't see why we won't be able to pass the ball better.
"We'll find out once we play Missouri. Practice is only one aspect of football. Once we get into game situations, that will really tell us where we stand as a passing unit.''
Williams did the work in the offseason, pulling the receivers aside for daily work. He also enters at 6-foot-2, 233 pounds. That's roughly the same weight as last season, but he feels leaner, Williams said.
Williams' climb to team leader is a natural progression, Zook said, for a star recruit who became the face of a program shortly after being Zook's first major recruiting victory as Illini coach. As a freshman, Williams became overwhelmed with the duties of a college quarterback, breaking down into tears during training camp that first August.
He started four games into his first season, although Williams had trouble early living up to the hype. A slow start last year that began with getting knocked out of a game for the first time, in the opener against Missouri, shook his confidence. It also ignited a debate over the starting spot.
"His freshman year, he felt like he had the weight of Chicago on his shoulders,'' Zook said. "He wants to please. It's important to him. Getting knocked out of the Missouri game and Eddie came in and did a great job. He can't read the papers. The second-team quarterback is always the favorite. You have to put that aside.''
After taking the shot against Missouri that left him with a bruised eye, "the next week I wasn't making reads,'' he said. "I was trying to get out of the way of defenders. That led to the next few games. Then there was talk (outside the locker room) of me being replaced. That was more added pressure. When we lost to Iowa, I prayed about it a lot.
"I told myself to go out there and have fun no matter what happens. I really made up my mind to have fun.''
If questions lingered about the future of the position, Williams ended the discussion by throwing for four touchdowns in the 28-21 win at Ohio State, a game he sealed by converting a fourth-and-inches before three more third-down runs resulted in first downs to kill the final 8 minutes 9 seconds off the clock.
He finished the game in tears of joy. His mother, Anita, still watches that game on tape nearly every night. Williams doesn't mind seeing it either.
"He's the kind of player you want the ball in his hands in the last 8 minutes,'' Zook said.
Becoming a father changed Williams, Illinois senior center Ryan McDonald said.
"I'm absolutely sure it has,'' McDonald said. Williams is more responsible. He's more mature.”
"He accepted that responsibility,'' Zook said. "He does what he's supposed to do to take care of that responsibility.''
As a junior, Williams has more than the ball in his hands. He also holds his daughter and his team.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
By the numbers
The statistics of Illinois junior quarterback Juice Williams