Former Illini QB Williams gets another shot at Bears' rookie camp

Matt Trowbridge

The Chicago Bears call him Isiah Williams, but the rest of Illinois has always known him as “Juice.”

Maybe that’s fitting, because for the first time in his life, the man with the memorable nickname isn’t expected to achieve memorable things. Williams attended the Bears’ three-day rookie mini camp that ended Sunday as an undrafted free agent. That’s not what he expected when he turned down Ohio State, Penn State and Tennessee to enter Illinois as the No. 5 quarterback recruit in the nation out of Chicago Vocational.

“Every kid comes out of high school thinking he’s the best thing out there and is going to get drafted No. 1 overall,” Williams said after practice Saturday. “The reality is only a very low percentage of guys get on that pedestal. I won’t say it was a failure not to be drafted. The opportunity I have this weekend, I’m trying to make the most of it.”

It’s odd to hear the only player in Illinois history with more than 10,000 career yards — 8,037 passing, 2,557 rushing — use the word failure, even in denying it, about his career. But Williams was perhaps the most mercurial of any Illini great.

He led Illinois to the Rose Bowl as a sophomore, when he ran for 70 yards and passed for 4 TDs in a 28-21 upset of No. 1-ranked Ohio State that some have described as the greatest win in Illinois history. But he passed for 2,000 yards only once, and Illinois fell from the Rose Bowl to 5-7 and 3-9 his last two seasons.

“It’s been ups and downs,” Williams said. “It’s supposed to be that way as a football player. You can’t have everything good. Everything won’t go bad as well. It’s going to be a roller coaster.”

The Williams roller coaster has always revolved around his passing skills. He’s been characterized as more of an athlete than a refined quarterback. The Bears are trying him at quarterback, but Williams’ pro hopes could eventually rely on a position switch.

“I’m playing quarterback until someone else says different,” Williams said. “I’ve been playing this position all my life. That’s pretty much all I know. But I’m definitely athletic enough to do other things.

“I’ll do whatever they need me to be. Right now, I wear the orange jersey, which indicates quarterback, but if the change needs to be made, I’m all for it.”

And if nothing will work in the pros, well, Williams is all for that, too. The lightning rod for all that was good, and bad, for Illini football the last four years graduated with a degree in Communications in December.

“Hopefully I can open some eyes here. If another team invites me to camp, I’m more than willing to go,” Williams said. “If not, I had a great time playing this sport. If it does end here, I had a ball.

“I’m an uplifting guy. I’m always smiling. And in Illinois history, I think my name will be remembered.

“I’ve had a blast the last few years.”

Assistant sports editor Matt Trowbridge can be reached at: 815-987-1383 or mtrowbridge@rrstar.com.