Williams reflects on ups and downs before last home game

John Supinie

Illinois senior quarterback Juice Williams freely admits he has his critics.

"I'm not the Tom Brady of college football,'' Williams said Tuesday, four days before his last college game. "I'm pretty sure there are negative comments about my game, not being a polished passer.''

He set a school record and stands sixth in Big Ten Conference history with 10,327 total yards going into Illinois (3-8 overall) hosting Fresno State (7-4) in the season finale and senior day Saturday (11:30 a.m., Big Ten Network), yet Williams and his story don't have a happy ending.

The first key recruit at Illinois under coach Ron Zook, Williams arrived from Chicago Vocational as the anointed face of the program, football's version of Dee Brown at a time when the Illini searched for leaders and playmakers. As a raw recruit who didn't know a "three-step drop or a five-stop drop,'' he said, Williams took over the starting job four games into his freshman season.

After leading Illinois to a win at top-ranked Ohio State and a Rose Bowl appearance as a sophomore, it's been downhill from there for Williams. Illinois finished with a losing record in his junior year. When his numbers tumbled as a senior, the Illini lost even more games.

"I was able to do some pretty spectacular things to get some pretty significant wins over the last couple of years,'' Williams said. "That's a compliment to the coaching staff and my teammates.''

He wasn't the team leader. The captains against Fresno State are guard Jon Asamoah, receiver Arrelious Benn, defensive end Doug Pilcher and linebacker Ian Thomas. Yet Williams is a special player for Zook, who fought back tears during his weekly press conference Tuesday.

Zook became closer with Williams "because what he had to endure,'' he said. "I can remember walking into the training table, I was physically worried about that guy. Has he been great? Not all the time. He's a competitor, and he'll be successful with whatever he does.''

Williams' three favorite memories are victories: the win at Ohio State two years ago; the victory over Michigan earlier this season; and the win at Michigan State in 2006, when Williams drove the Illini for a game-winning field goal in the closing seconds for his first victory as a starter.

In January, Williams will begin an intense six-week training regimen to prepare for NFL scouts. A change in position may help his chances.

"Hopefully, somebody gives me an opportunity like Illinois did,'' Williams said. "We'll see what happens, whether that's playing another position or quarterback. If a position change is the only opportunity I have to play in the NFL, that's an adjustment I need to make.''

Williams noticed how former Penn State quarterback Mike Robinson is a running back with the San Francisco 49ers, and Williams – a 6-foot-2, 235-pound bull – is likely better suited in the backfield somewhere other than quarterback. He also mentioned the possibility of receiver or somewhere on defense.

The gray hair is already starting to show, and Williams feels he's a long way from the kid who left Chicago's south side.

"Illinois introduced me to a lot of things,'' Williams said. "I came from a rough background, a rough neighborhood and a rough high school. Illinois was an opportunity to come out and learn new things. As a young man and father, it taught me a lot.''

John Supinie can be reached

Williams by the numbers

Yr./Rushing yards/Passing yards/Completion percentage/Tds/Ints/Total yards