Daily Herald
Illini's Williams can't get off the ground
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 9/30/2009 12:04 AM

Remember Juice Williams' freshman year? When he had the unenviable task of growing from a Public League quarterback into a Big Ten quarterback in a nine-month span?

He abused receivers' hands with passes thrown much too hard. He avoided receivers' hands with passes thrown much too errantly.

At the same time, he awed coaches and fans with his cannon arm that delivered 50-yard-plus passes in his first nine games - and mocked opposing defenses with his ability to run with power and speed.

In summation, his vast potential enabled everyone to envision the payouts growing larger and the problems going away as Williams rode his massive learning curve.

Which brings everyone to today's conundrum:

As Juice and the Illini (1-2, 0-1) prepare for Saturday's visit from No. 15 Penn State (3-1, 0-1), the 21-year-old's pass efficiency rating at the outset of his senior season somehow falls below his freshman-year follies.

He completed 31 of 53 passes for 256 yards and 3 interceptions against Missouri and Ohio State. More important, the Illini managed just 9 points in those unexpected beatdowns.

"It's hard for anybody to handle adversity like that," said Illinois coach Ron Zook on Tuesday.

What's the best way for Williams to handle this adversity?

Right about now, he needs to hop into a time machine and listen to a pep talk - from the Juice Williams of two months ago.

At the Big Ten media days in late July, Williams was asked what sort of advice he'd offer to the Juice Williams that was fresh out of Chicago Vocational High School in the fall of 2006.

That advice is just as appropriate for today's Juice, if not more so.

"He didn't know too much," Williams said of freshman-year Juice. "I was a 39 percent (thrower). I'd tell him now to relax and have fun.

"I think that's been the biggest difference between how I played then and how I played now. If you see me then, you noticed a lot of the time, even during the game, I really didn't smile on the sidelines. I didn't laugh at all.

"But now you see me on the sidelines - I'm having fun, I'm enjoying the game. I'm high-fiving my teammates from celebrating. I'm even walking around campus smiling. I'm really not letting the bad get to me anymore.

"In my opinion, that makes anybody reach their maximum potential. They're having fun at what they do, they're playing a game that they love, and they go out there and have fun with the game every game."

Putting on a happy face should help, but being put into some better-suited plays should help more.

With rare exceptions, new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz has asked Williams to stick with short and intermediate routes.

The kid that completed 76- and 69-yard touchdown passes in the same quarter against Syracuse on Sept. 17, 2006, has been nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps against Penn State?

"He understands that he's got to perform better," Zook said. "We've got to put him in situations where he can perform better."