Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Juice Williams enters 2009 as one of the Big Ten's most recognizable players, a proven quarterback in a league starved for them.
Williams has experienced just about everything at Illinois: A 10-loss season as a raw, yet talented freshman, a thrilling Rose Bowl run as a sophomore and a very disappointing campaign as a junior last fall. Illinois led the Big Ten in passing and ranked second in total offense but struggled to a 5-7 finish. Williams, a second-team All-Big Ten selection last fall, wants to end his college career on a good note, and perhaps for the first time he has truly taken ownership of the team.
Earlier this week, Williams discussed his up-and-down 2008 season, his outlook for the future and his legacy at Illinois.
What's been the mood for you and the guys during offseason workouts after things didn't go the way you wanted them to last fall?
Juice Williams: The attitude of this year's team is completely different from what we had last year at this time. Obviously, we didn't end up the way we should have or what we thought we should have. But that's affected this team in such a positive way. [The struggles] may be one of the best things to happen to this team.
Guys now are realizing that if we don't come to play every week, we're not going to be successful. And in order to come out there and play like that, we have to train and prepare our bodies to play 12 games to the maximum potential. Guys have really taken on that role, and I think we'll be ready by the time the season comes around.
Do you think guys were taking things for granted a little bit last year, especially coming off a Rose Bowl run?
JW: I think it had some type of affect on it. Guys kind of slacked off a little bit. We didn't really have the same intensity in the offseason as we should have. But like I said, I think it was probably the best thing that happened to us, not going to a bowl game. Us bringing back so many seniors and so much experience for this year, it's going to really prepare this team in the right direction.
You mentioned you've seen an attitude change. Are there examples you've seen in workouts? What has let you know that there's a real shift going on?
JW: Just the team chemistry. Everyone is on the same page, everyone is being accountable, everyone is coming out in the weight room and doing the team runs, just really coming and preparing themselves. Guys are competing with each other now. We have a lot of leadership on this team, and I think it's going in the right direction.
After last season, coach [Ron] Zook talked about the chemistry problems. What was your reaction to him, as the quarterback, when you heard that? Did you feel you needed to take on more leadership?
JW: Absolutely. You think of those great teams, those legendary teams that won many Super Bowls or NBA championships, they always had an aggressive, core group of leaders. That's something we've got to have installed here. We've got a bunch of guys -- Arrelious Benn, Jarred Fayson from Florida, got a bunch of guys on defense in Dere Hicks and Martez Wilson. We've got a bunch of guys who will step up to the plate and be leaders out there.
I would have to agree with coach. I believe the team chemistry wasn't where it should have been last season, but that can be corrected. That's what we're focusing on right now.
How much of that responsibility falls on you as the quarterback?
JW: The last couple years, the coaches did a great job of allowing me to hide behind those guys and not take on as much responsibility as I should. I'm a fourth-year guy now, I'm the quarterback of the team and my mindset is, it is my team. That's going to help me out and allow me to take on more of a leadership role. That's the approach I'm definitely taking.
As you look back at last year, how did you evaluate your play? For the first half of the year, you were setting records, but the year as a whole didn't end up how you wanted it to.
JW: I would say it was OK. The records, the individual performances, that was all fine. But the most important stat I really wasn't too pleased with, and that's wins and losses. We've got to win more games. When we're able to go out there and have a significant number of wins, then I'll be able look back at the season and say I've done pretty well.
What are the things you're focusing on in the offseason? Is it just leadership or more technical things?
JW: It's a little bit of both. The leadership role, that's going to be key, pulling guys up when situations aren't going in our favor. And on the field, there are some things I need to continue to work on. For one, just not turning the ball over. I think I ended the season with 15 or 16 interceptions . Although you can't credit everything to the quarterback [laughs]. But I know I can't turn the ball over. No matter who's fault it was, I take the blame for all those interceptions. That's something I want to change going into this season.
What was your reaction when coach [Mike Locksley] left? I'm guessing you thought he'd leave at some point to be a head coach, but how tough was that?
JW: It was very tough. I've known the guy for three, four seasons. Understanding him and knowing him inside-out, it was tough to let a guy like that go. But he's a man of achievements, a man who wants the best for his career, and that's something you've got to respect. It was hard to see him go, but I'm sure we'll be able to keep going in the right direction. We shoot each other texts every now and then. He calls to see how I'm doing. We developed a tight-knit relationship off the field, so I think we'll continue that.
What has it been like working with [new offensive coordinator Mike] Schultz? What has been his message for you and the offense?
JW: I'm excited. Coach Schultz, he's going to bring some explosiveness to this offense, along with the things they did at TCU. We're going in the right direction. He's been around the game for a long time. He loves to talk football every time I walk by him, so it's going to be exciting.
I know you haven't gotten on the practice field with him yet, but do you get a sense of how things will change as far as the scheme or your responsibilities?
JW: There's going to be a few additions here and there, a few wrinkles. I think I'll have a little bit more control of what goes on out there. But for the most part, it's going to be the exact same stuff as we ran the last couple of years with coach Locksley here. He's going to add a few things he brought over from TCU.
We've got a great group of receivers coming back, a stronger offensive front,
we've got great running backs coming back. So I'm expecting big things.
Does coach Schultz put a lot on the quarterback, especially a senior like you who has started three years?
JW: That's the type of vibe I'm getting, that he allows the quarterback to go out there and take control. That's something I think I'm prepared for. I've been around college football for the last couple years. I'm ready for that role.
You guys return basically everyone at the skill positions. Who are you most excited to work with in spring ball?
JW: It's hard to start. But obviously, Arrelious Benn is going to be a great guy coming back for his junior season. We've got [wide receiver] Jarred Fayson, a transfer from Florida, he'll bring a huge part to this offense. And then Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt, a bunch of those young guys who are maturing, Alfred Jenkins, Fred Sykes, a bunch of those guys. We've got a tight end [Michael Hoomanawanui] who will be a fourth-year starter. There's so many weapons, so many positive things coming into this spring, I'm excited to get there.
Who are the guys on defense stepping up as far as leaders?
JW: I see Dere Hicks, Donsay Hardeman back at safety, Martez Wilson, we get Sirod Williams back from an ACL injury last year. We have Antonio James up front as well at defensive end, so it's a bunch of guys and a bunch of experience on the defense. Once we fill in a few holes here, they'll be fine.
How do you see this year as far as shaping your legacy at Illinois? People will always remember the win at Ohio State [in 2007] and the Rose Bowl, but how will this year complete your legacy in college?
JW: I'm looking at this year as an opportunity to come out and just win as many games as possible. We have the athletes, we have the players, we have the coaches, we have the schemes. Everything is in our favor to go out there and be productive this year. The legacy I want to leave is a quarterback who came from the slums, a guy who came hardly knowing anything, to one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever played at Illinois. The only way I can do that is to win games.