Illini of the Week: Williams finds second chance under Illini head coach Beckman

_Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Student-athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success._

Ashante Williams cried when he found out he was a Week One captain.

The senior Illini football player understands that not many people get a second chance. But under new head coach Tim Beckman, Williams did.

The senior entered last season as a starting outside linebacker, but in July 2011 he was arrested in Urbana for driving with a blood-alcohol level of .177 percent, more than twice the legal limit in Illinois.

Williams was suspended for the first three games of the 2011 season by former head coach Ron Zook, and his off-the-field trouble cost him the starting job.

A coaching change offered Williams a chance to wipe his slate clean.

“I know everything you’ve been through in the past,” Beckman told Williams. “We’re building a new foundation; we’re starting over new. You’ve got a fresh start.” One year later, a rejuvenated Williams proudly represented his Illini teammates as one of four captains in last Saturday’s victory against Western Michigan at Memorial Stadium.

“To go out and actually lead the team on the field, and I’ve never had this big of a role, it just means so much to me,” Williams said.

Williams, who plays the hybrid linebacker-safety position dubbed STAR by Beckman and his new coaching staff, saw time as a backup during his freshman and sophomore campaigns and was primed for a big role last year, but his DUI and resulting suspension postponed his emergence as a consistent presence in the Illini defense until this season.

Williams views last season as the low-point in his football career and is grateful to have an opportunity to turn his career around with Beckman, whom Williams said he loves like a father.

“I came in and coached these players as if they were brand-new players,” Beckman said. “That was the past. I look at how well they work (now).”

Beckman recruited Williams out of high school as an assistant at Ohio State, so he was familiar with the Mayfield, Ohio prospect.

“He actually knew a little bit about my background and he’s like, ‘You’re not a bad person, you just made a few bad decisions,’” Williams said. “‘It happens to everybody. You live and you learn.’ That was a big stepping stone in the right direction for me because I felt like I had the support of the head guy and that’s all I needed.”

Williams has taken Beckman’s words to heart. All offseason, the coaching staff talked up Williams as one of the hardest workers on the team, and his hard work paid off on Saturday when he recorded a career-high nine tackles and returned his first interception for a touchdown in the 24-7 win.

“I really wanted to come out and prove that I really should be on the field this year and that I wasn’t just handed the spot because I was a senior,” Williams said. “I didn’t want to let anybody down, so this week I prepared even harder just to make sure that I came out on the right foot.”

Williams eventually found his way into the starting lineup last season when starter Trulon Henry missed the last two regular season games and the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl after being shot in the hand. But amid the off-the-field distractions, he said he was never truly comfortable in the starting role last season.

“Last year, I didn’t really prepare like I was ever going to be on the field,” Williams said. “The last three games that I had to start last year I was trying to just catch up.”

Williams now uses his checkered past as motivation for his final season in orange and blue.

“He’s always ready to go out there anytime his number is called,” senior defensive back Terry Hawthorne said. “I think that really hit him during the week when coach told him he was captain. He took more leadership on.”

Beckman, who also coaches the STAR position, has touted Williams’ leadership and work ethic since spring practices and wasn’t surprised when the senior made one of the biggest plays in Saturday’s game.

“I see him getting better and better,” he said. “I’m excited to see how he plays this next week against Arizona State.”

_Chad can be reached at [email protected] and @cthornburg10._