COLUMN: Illinois football unveils Renovation of Juice Williams

By Kyle Betts

This Saturday, Champaign-Urbana and the student body of the University will get their own personal look at a project the school and the football team undertook in 2006. It was a project they hoped would bring new direction to a program relegated to the bottom of the Big Ten Conference and change the way people talked about football around this campus forever.

Of course I’m talking about the renovation of quarterback Juice Williams … I guess there’s also that whole Memorial Stadium thing too.

As a freshman stepping onto campus for his first season, Isiah “Juice” Williams was raw and unpolished like the home stadium where he would play. As the media watched from their tight little press box that felt more like a cramped tree house than anything else, Juice split time with senior quarterback Tim Brasic and struggled mightily. He threw nine touchdowns but also had nine interceptions and a 39.5 completion percentage (one of the worst completion percentages in college football … ever). And even though Juice struggled with the passing game, the foundation was laid for a potentially successful future. Now it was time to start building.

As fall turned to winter and the Illini sat at home during bowl season yet again, construction began on their new quarterback and Memorial Stadium. Juice lifted weights and checked his playbook, while construction workers lifted metal beams and checked their blueprints. It was the start of a transformation process.

Juice’s sophomore season started with the potential we all knew was there, as we watched him raise his completion percentage (57.3 percent) and passer rating (119.22) from the new view of Block I. Although his touchdown-to-interception ratio was nothing great (13:12), it was obvious progress was being made and the future was looking brighter. We all know the 2007 Fighting Illini went on to have a great season and play in the Rose Bowl, but after getting trounced by the Los Angeles NFL team it was clear there were still some finishing touches needed.

Now 2008 is here and it’s time for the big unveiling in C-U. Maybe you caught a glimpse of Juice throwing bombs all over the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, and maybe you got a peak at some of Memorial Stadium while driving down Peabody Drive, but this Saturday the big renovation will be complete. We’ll see Memorial Stadium become fully operational and we’ll see Juice fully operate the offense.

Of course last week’s game didn’t go exactly as the Illini planned, with Juice throwing two costly interceptions late in the game, but his level play and leadership have clearly matured.

As Mizzou continued to stuff the running game at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the option attack, head coach Ron Zook relied heavily on Juice’s arm to keep the Illini in the game. He responded with 451 yards passing and five touchdowns. No big deal or anything.

“He is becoming a guy that he should become after being a third-year starter,” Zook said Saturday night after the game. “He didn’t run quite as much but he did what he had to, and he made things happen.”

You’re right, Coach Zook, Juice didn’t run quite as much or as effectively as he usually does (10 yards on 19 carries), but that’s a good thing. Check that, it’s a great thing.

We’ve known for a few years that Juice has a strong arm and is a big-time runner, but it seems he is finally putting those two elements of his game to … wait for it … create open receivers downfield. Something Juice has never used before.

Instead of simply taking off with the ball and trying to get yardage on the ground, he’s rolling out of the pocket and creating new throwing lanes for his receivers downfield. Juice displayed this new ability numerous times last Saturday and the proof is in the pudding (What does that even mean?): 42 passing attempts, 19 rushing attempts.

The ability for a quarterback to use his legs to help in the passing game isn’t a new idea, though. A few years back, former Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith was criticized for running the ball too much. Coaches worked on using his speed and athletic ability to roll out, which would allow him to essentially provide his own pass protection and create more opportunities downfield. And guess what? Smith won the Heisman.

Now I’m not saying Juice is suddenly going to become a candidate for the Heisman Trophy anytime soon. He still has several flaws to fix and skills to prove on the field, but his rollout ability shows he has been listening to his coaches and wants to adapt his game to become a better passer.

Juice is now a more sophisticated and sleeker player than he was in 2006. Much like the more sophisticated and sleeker Memorial Stadium we will see him play in on Saturday.

Of course while the UI is done renovating the stadium (for now), Juice still has another year after this one (for now) to continue his development.

Illinois will be wearing its throwback uniforms against Eastern Illinois, but the future of Illini football will be on full display. So sit back and enjoy the Renaissance.

Now, we if can just start renovating our safeties.

Kyle Betts is a graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]