Illinois quarterback starts season with a smile

Friday, August 29, 2008 | 3:38 a.m. CDT; updated 11:39 a.m. CDT, Friday, August 29, 2008
Junior quarterback Juice Williams enters his third season with the Illini.

In the offseason, Illinois quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams had a meeting with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. While they were together, the two Chicago natives discussed several things, including how Williams could develop as a quarterback.

Since that meeting, Williams has been smiling a lot more.

"(Donovan told me) to play with confidence and have fun with the game," Williams said. "Football is a game, it's a sport, and it's that way for a reason. You can't live and die by the game of football. Just go out there and have fun and keep a smile on your face."

Given his history, a smiling Williams is not good news for the Illini's opponents.

"If you look at my career in college, every time I tend to have a smile and enjoy myself, I definitely have the most success," Williams said. "That's something that I'm going to try to do throughout this entire season."

Smiling wasn't something that Williams did in last season's opener against Missouri. In the second quarter, Williams took a shot from Missouri's Hardy Ricks at the end of a run, which proved to be his final play of the day.

"Instead of finishing the run, I started sliding a little bit, and the guy just hit me," Williams said.

Although that play ended Williams' day against the Tigers, it also proved critical to his development as a quarterback.

When the Illini entered their Big Ten schedule, it was clear that Williams used that play to improve.

"I've learned my lesson," he said. "After that game, the coach went on me to run to the finish. As the season went on, and I started running harder and breaking tackles, it really paid off."

Nowhere was that more evident than in Illinois' upset of top-ranked Ohio State on the road. In the late stages of the game, it was Williams' legs that carried the Illini past the Buckeyes and lifted Illinois into the national spotlight.

"You knock off the No. 1 team, that definitely solidified the type of team that we are, that we were last year," he said. "It was just one of those situations that you'll never forget. It gave this team momentum to go out there and have success after that game."

But that model hasn't been the focus of Williams or Illinois coach Ron Zook this offseason. Williams' running talent is well known, but he has struggled with his passing in the past. He completed just 39.5 percent of his passes in his freshman season when Illinois finished 2-10.

Last year, when the Illini won nine games, a big reasons was a jump of nearly 18 percent in Williams' completion percentage, which finished at 57.3 percent. At the same time, Williams' rushing totals increased from 576 to 755 yards, proving that his passing improvement did not require sacrificing his running ability.

"I'm a better passer," he said. "That's something I struggled with as a freshman. There were a lot of things that I just didn't know and a lot of things that were new to me. I really worked at it, I got with my coaches in the offseason, I spent some time with the receivers and I did everything I could to go out there and be a better passer, and it's really worked out for me. Everything is more fluid, and I'm just more confident now."

That improvement from last year has Zook expecting more of the same in Williams' third year as a college quarterback.

"I just got done telling some people that he has improved in every area, whether it be the way he talks with the media or the way he practices," Zook said. "Now it's going to be important that he goes out there and shows (it). What I think is going to happen is that he's a much improved player.

"He's a competitor, he loves to compete. (Offensive coordinator) Michael (Locksley) has done such a good job in teaching him how to be a quarterback. To Juice's credit, he has taken the bull by the horns and done the things necessary to help him be a much improved player."

Zook hopes Williams will have a completion percentage around 70 this season, which would be another step in his transition from a running quarterback to a more prototypical quarterback, who can also run.

If that is the case, the kind of player the improved Williams becomes might be similar to his friend McNabb, a quarterback with speed who has made a name with accurate passing and leadership.

"There's so many similarities between myself and Donovan, as far as size, height and arm strength," Williams said. "(We are) just able to move around in the pocket and make plays with our legs. There's a lot of similarities between him and I. Obviously, he's in the NFL and has done it professionally, while I'm still an amateur. There's still a little way to go."

The next step on his path comes Saturday night in St. Louis. If Williams is able to lead the Illini past the Tigers this season, he won't be hard to spot afterwards.

He'll be the player with the biggest smile.


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