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Squeezing Juice

Illinois QB is more of a threat with his feet than this arm, but ask Ohio State how dangerous he is

December 25, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- An unsettling thought or two might sneak into his head on New Year's Day.

At some point during the Rose Bowl game, Juice Williams might glance across the line of scrimmage and spot a linebacker inching closer. Maybe a cornerback threatening to blitz.

The young Illinois quarterback knows the troubles that USC's defense can cause.

"It's going to play with your mind," he said.

That's not so good for a sophomore who has struggled at times this season, battling inexperience and inconsistency, turnovers and, most of all, self-doubts.

But he has shown a knack for bouncing back, guiding the Fighting Illini to Pasadena for the first time in 24 years with the kind of raw scrambling talent that -- as Ohio State discovered -- can change a game.

The kind of talent that, in recent years, has given the Trojans fits.

"It's like having an extra running back because, at any moment, he can take off," USC defensive lineman Sedrick Ellis said. "In the past, we've had our problems with guys like that."

So, while the 13th-ranked Illini have an aggressive defense and running back Rashard Mendenhall, the nation's eighth-best rusher, Williams could play the wild card against the heavily favored, sixth-ranked Trojans.

"That's the power of a mobile quarterback," he said. "You can make things happen."

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Some guys get hung up on semantics. They don't like the "running" part of running quarterback.

Williams doesn't mind.

"That's how it goes when you can do something with your feet," he said.

This season, the Illinois coaches have worked to keep him in the pocket a little longer, eyes downfield, running through his progression of receivers. But they aren't about to deny his natural abilities.

"It's not necessarily about making him a passer," offensive coordinator Mike Locksley says. "We're going to design our offense to do what he does well. He has the ability to make plays with his feet."

So the Illini like to run the ball with traps, the speed option and zone read. USC has been down this road before (see Vince Young and Texas, circa 2006).

In the zone read, Williams starts in the shotgun and extends the ball toward the running back, who is lined up beside him. In the breadth of a second, the quarterback must read the defense.

Say the running back is headed left to right. If the defensive end on the left side comes straight upfield, Williams leaves the ball with his back, who continues running right. But if the end takes a flatter angle, chasing after the back, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs left into open space.

Williams was successful enough at such trickery to rush for 774 yards and seven touchdowns this season, seventh best among Big Ten Conference runners.

In early October, he and Mendenhall combined for 252 yards in an upset over fifth-ranked Wisconsin.

"They're strong runners," Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema said. "The quarterback has good size in addition to being quick and they can make you miss tackles."

Throwing the ball was another story. Williams passed for 1,498 yards and 13 touchdowns but had 10 interceptions and, in terms of yards per game, did not even rank among the top 10 quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

It wasn't until late in the season -- 207 passing yards against Minnesota, 220 versus Northwestern -- that he began to show potential through the air.

"The biggest thing we stressed was having confidence," Locksley said. "Confidence has been an issue for him."

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Looking back to Williams' arrival in Champaign last season, it's no surprise he had a bumpy start.

Among the first blue-chip recruits signed by Coach Ron Zook, Williams chose Illinois over Ohio State, Penn State and Tennessee because he figured to break into the lineup more quickly.

For better or worse, that's exactly what happened. Offensive lineman Martin O'Donnell recalls: "An 18-year-old kid starting at quarterback in the Big Ten?"

A product of Chicago public schools, the freshman had no experience with a sophisticated passing attack and no understanding of what it takes to succeed at the college level.

Back at Chicago Vocational High, he rarely studied opponents.

"Coming in here, I thought it would be the same," he said. "I remember times when I watched film once a day, went out for the game on Saturday and was absolutely clueless."

Clueless as in a 40% completion rate, Illinois limping to a 2-10 record.

"There were a few low points," he said. "Coach Zook told me that I didn't smile for two weeks."

Williams had some personal history with hard times. Born so large at 13 pounds, 8 ounces, he nearly died. His grandmother called him big and juicy, coining a nickname that supplanted his given name, Isiah.

After that first season at Illinois, he spent the off-season doing his football homework. Coaches taught him to watch film, looking for cornerback location and body language that might tip off a blitz.

When this season came around, a more assured Williams figured to soar.

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