Rookie ‘juicing’ up Illini offense

By Jason Grodsky

It’s been eight years since Illinois started a freshman at quarterback. But with Juice Williams anxiously standing on the sidelines and proving himself in each early season performance, that may change this weekend.

The most common question in practice this week has been about the quarterback situation. Senior Tim Brasic and Williams are about even on reps, and head coach Ron Zook said that he will talk to the two today and make his decision Saturday morning.

Through three games this season Williams has completed 13 of 30 pass attempts for 266 yards and two touchdowns while sharing time under center with Brasic.

“I was very, very pleased with him,” Illini head coach Ron Zook said after the Syracuse game. “Each time he steps on the field, he gets better and better. It’s exciting to watch him improve.”

Williams’ most exciting characteristic has been his ability to provide a missing spark for the Illini offense.

In last weekend’s 31-21 loss to Syracuse, Brasic led one drive that resulted in a score, and the offense seemed to be just going through the motions without any real jump in their step.

But when Williams entered the game the offense clicked and found the end zone twice on big pass plays, and if it weren’t for a few dropped passes Williams may have led the Illini into the end zone more than just twice.

“On Saturday he definitely provided us with a spark,” sophomore running back Rashard Mendenhall said. “He was hitting his reads and making great throws. He really showed that he is a great player and a very talented athlete.”

Williams also provides the Illini with not only a great arm, but great overall athletic ability.

On Williams’ first career touchdown pass last weekend he juked a Syracuse defender in the backfield to avoid being sacked and rolled to the right sideline where he found Mendenhall streaking down the sideline for a 76-yard touchdown.

“He brings the ability to move around and make big plays to the table whenever he touches the ball,” Mendenhall said. “That’s why he was so highly touted coming out of high school. When you look at him when he’s in the pocket he looks comfortable and is making plays.”

While Brasic’s 60-net yards rushing outshines Williams’ 10, Williams has shown more mobility than Brasic in escaping the pocket and making defenders miss. Williams also holds a key stat over Brasic: he has thrown no interceptions this season while Brasic has tossed three.

This isn’t to say that Brasic hasn’t done his job. He manages the Illini offense well and if not for his turnovers and his receivers dropping passes, Brasic might be having a solid year.

While it is evident that Williams and the rest of the freshman class have been given the responsibility of being the catalysts for turning the Illinois program around, it is going to be a while before they completely adapt and mature into Zook’s system.

But with every snap Williams is showing improvement. He isn’t trying to throw the ball through the receivers with his cannon of an arm, and instead he’s putting more touch on his passes and allowing his receivers to settle under them and make big plays.

“Juice is learning fast,” sophomore receiver Derrick McPhearson said. “It’s so hard for a freshman quarterback to come in and do what he is doing. But I give him a lot of respect because he is doing a lot of things that most freshman quarterbacks can’t do.”

After his best game of his career in Orange and Blue, Williams’ confidence is high and he is poised to take over an Illini offense that has the potential to develop into one of the best in the Big Ten during the next few years.

“If they call on me I’m not going to back down,” Williams said after the Syracuse game. “The decision is up to coach Locksley and coach Zook and whenever they give me the cue all I can do is be prepared.”