QB Williams leaves Illinois with a mixed legacy

As he prepared for his last game at Illinois, quarterback Juice

Williams talked like a man who doesn’t know where he fits into the

199-year history of the program, like he might disappear into the

pages of Illini history like he was never here.

He is the all-time Illinois leader in offensive production. He

led his team to the Rose Bowl as a sophomore. And he is a potential

NFL talent.

And yet Williams told reporters this when asked about his Illini


“I feel your legacy is really dictated by what people think

about you,” he said, talking about nights when he fell asleep

crying, doubting he was good enough to be a major college

quarterback. “If people don’t really like me or like the things

I’ve done here, the legacy’s not even there.”

Juice Williams’ place in Illinois football history isn’t a

simple thing to assess.

The 21-year-old senior owns that offensive record – 10,600 yards

in all, easily better than No. 2 Kurt Kittner’s 8,880 – but he was

benched for ineffectiveness a week after setting it.

Juice engineered an 8-minute drive that neither Illinois nor

Ohio State fans will soon forget, draining the clock and sealing

the road win that simultaneously ended the Buckeyes’ bid for a

perfect 2007 season and sent Illinois to the Rose Bowl.

But since that Rose Bowl, the Illini are 8-16. And this season,

with a group of receivers that were supposed to be among the best

in the country, Juice’s Illini averaged 193 yards passing per game

and had just 15 touchdowns through the air – both next to last in

the Big Ten.

Yet the harshest criticism most fans direct toward Williams is

that he never improved after the Rose Bowl. If true, is that on

Williams or his coaches?

Head coach Ron Zook brought Williams to Illinois as a prize

catch from Chicago. Here was a rarity among highly regarded players

from the city, choosing the Illini – who were in the middle of five

consecutive losing seasons – over suitors with better reputations

and records.

But even Zook, who spent the better part of four years telling

fans and reporters that Williams was getting better, now says the

player who was the face of his program was both a great guy to

coach and a mixed bag on the field.

Williams played hurt, Zook said, and never complained about

being benched by his coach or criticized by fans.

“Has he been great? No, not all the time,” Zook said. “But

I’ll tell you something. He’s a winner. He’s a competitor, and

he’ll be successful in whatever he does. There’s no doubt in my


What Juice wants to do is play in the NFL.

He says he’s ready to put the communications degree he’s on

target to earn in December to work as he raises a 2-year-old

daughter, but plans to start training to impress NFL coaches and

scouts in January in hopes he won’t have to set football aside just


He’d like to play quarterback, but he’s willing to try his hand

at running back, receiver – whatever it takes.

“If that’s the only opportunity I have to have to play in the

NFL, that’s (what he’ll do),” he said.

But, like his time at Illinois, his NFL prospects aren’t a

simple thing to figure out.

“I have mixed feelings on Juice,” NFL.com analyst and former

Dallas Cowboys general manager Gil Brandt said.

Williams isn’t an NFL quarterback, Brandt said, but “I think

he’s too good an athlete not to be a player. … He’ll get


Maybe as a receiver, or perhaps a safety.

If he makes it, a lot of the credit will belong to Illinois and

his coaches for giving him a shot to move beyond what he calls “a

very rough background.” And, he adds with humility, he’d like a

little credit, too.

“I’m not the Tom Brady of college football,” Williams said,

“but I was able to do some pretty spectacular things and get some

pretty significant wins the past four years.”