Illinois' Williams puts together the pieces

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

A sense of pride splashed over Ron Zook Monday as the Illinois head coach stood in the back of the offensive meeting room.

Zook watched as senior quarterback Juice Williams and offensive coordinator Mike Schultz reviewed practice tape. Schultz quizzed Williams on his every move, and Williams countered with the right responses.

"A lot of times Coach Schultz will say, ‘Why did you go there?’" Zook recalled. "And as you hear [Williams] regurgitate the answer, it makes you feel good, a little pride that, ‘Hey, here’s a guy who’s come an awful long way.’ He’s able to explain that this is why he went with the ball some particular place and why he did what he did with no hesitation.

"To me, that’s a guy who has a pretty good grasp on what we’re trying to do.”

It's a good sign for a player who often draws mixed reviews. Everyone has an opinion on Juice Williams.

They admire his natural gifts and question his decision-making skills. They laud his mobility but rip his passing mechanics. Some remember his brilliance at Ohio State in 2007, when he convinced Zook to go for a fourth-and-1 in Illinois territory late in the fourth quarter, moved the chains and then ran out the clock to upset the top-ranked Buckeyes. Others recall the total offense records he set in three different stadiums last fall, including the Big House.

He has been called a catalyst and an underachiever.

But Williams has made it difficult to totally buy into him. Take last season, for example.

In Illinois' first seven ballgames, he passed for 16 touchdowns, ran for five scores and threw seven interceptions. In the final five games, he passes for six touchdowns, ran for none and tossed nine picks.

“That’s just part of life and playing the position of quarterback," Williams said of the conflicting views on his play. "Everybody’s going to have things to say. Some things are going to be positive, some will be negative. You’ve got to take the good with the bad and try to make the best out of it.”

As Williams begins his final season Saturday against Missouri in St. Louis (ESPN, 3:40 p.m. ET), there's a growing sense that he'll finally put together all the pieces this fall. He's the Big Ten's most experienced quarterback, and he has the league's best wide receiving corps at his disposal.

Most importantly, a player who had no quarterbacks coach in high school and admits he was extremely raw when he arrived in Champaign has a much stronger hold on the position.

"Being a fourth-year senior, a guy who has been through this a few times, I’m probably more mentally prepared than ever before," Williams said. "That comes along with experience. The more mentally prepared you are, the better off you are in a game situation.

"I know what to expect for the most part, and we’ll see what I can do come Saturday.”

Williams will operate in more or less the same offense that led the Big Ten in passing (269.3 ypg) and ranked third in scoring (28.7 ppg) last fall. Rather than install a new scheme, Schultz adapted to what Illinois had used under previous coordinator Mike Locksley.

As Schultz learned the system, Williams was right there with him.

"It was my challenge to learn what they called everything," Schultz said. "They may call a four route a four route, and I might have called a four route a dry route. So we’d sit there and he’d tell me the terminology and how they called things. He helped me through that."

Zook has often said Williams took too much blame for Illinois' shortcomings last year, but the coach acknowledges that limiting turnovers is the top priority for the quarterback this fall. Illinois is deeper at both wide receiver and running back, with additions like wideout Jarred Fayson and the physical maturity of backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure.

Schultz wants to make sure Williams uses all of his weapons and manages the game the right way.

"Managing the offense to me means getting the ball to the right people, being in the right place with the ball, getting into the right play," Schultz said. "That’s basically what we’ve been trying to work on with Juice since I’ve been here, making sure we do a great job of managing the offense.

"There’s no doubt we have some kids that we feel have a chance to be good performers, but for them to be good performers, we need to get them the ball in the right situations."

The Missouri game has brought a mixed bag for Williams. Last year, he set the total offense record at Edward Jones Dome with 461 yards, racking up 451 pass yards and five touchdowns. But Illinois lost, 52-42.

In 2007, Williams was knocked out of the game after completing 6 of 9 passes in another Illini defeat.

"Somehow, we have to come up with a victory this time," he said. "It's one of the more anticipated games of the year for our program. The atmosphere of the crowd is probably second to none, playing in a pro stadium, you’ve got half [Illinois] and half [Missouri] fans out there, the trash-talking goes on."

Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon got an early start on the trash talking through his Twitter page. Not surprisingly, Williams was Weatherspoon's target.

"Squeeze the pulp out of Juice," Williams recalled. "That was very unique and original. It's what makes the game fun. You’ve got to have some trash-talking going on. I know, coming from him, it was nothing personal.

"I didn’t take it as disrespectful at all. I found it kind of funny.”

Having fun is a goal for Williams in his final season. He didn't have enough as an overmatched freshman, and last season brought more lows than highs.

But with an increased knowledge of the game, Williams expects to enjoy his final spin around the Big Ten.

"It’s a lot easier to have fun with the game because you know what you’re doing, you know what to expect," he said. "You have had some success in the past, and it’s a whole lot easier to go out there and have fun and do what you love to do.

"I realized that the more I smile, the more I enjoy myself out there, the better I play.”