The man pictured above is Isiah "Juice" Williams, about to enter his fourth year as the starting quarterback for the Illinois Fighting Illini. Now Juice was highly touted as the next Vince Young coming into college (and was heavily recruited by Texas for that fact) and Illinois fans were ecstatic when he arrived on campus. His first three years have seen a 2-10 season, a Rose Bowl trip, and a 5-7 roller coaster of disappointment. Each year Juice has progressed as a passer and next year, in my opinion, will be a huge year for him under new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz. Schultz, formerly the highly successful offensive coordinator for Texas Christian, replaces Mike Locksley, who left to coach New Mexico. I'm sure Schultz will find it hard to replace Locksley's brilliant gameplan of Option Left, Option Right, Deep Ball!, Option Left, Sweep, Offensive Penalty, Sack, Punt. I for one expect Juice to improve under Schultz. But how much improvement? For the basis of my theory I turn to a comparison with the aforemention Vince Young. Here's how the two stack up after three years as starting quarterbacks in college:
2006- 12 G, 8 GS. 103/261 (39.5%), 1,489 yds, 5.7 ypa, 9 tds/9 ints, 124.1 ypg, 91.9 rating
2007- 13 G, 13 GS, 153/267 (57.3%), 1,743 yds, 6.5 ypa, 13 tds/12 ints, 134.1 ypg, 119.2 rating
2008- 12 G, 12 GS, 219/381 (57.5%), 3,173 yds, 8.3 ypa, , 22 tds, 16 ints, 264.4 ypg, 138.1 rating
2006- 154 rushes for 576 yds, 2 tds, 3.7 ypa, 48 ypg
2007- 165 for 755 yds, 7 tds, 4.6 ypa, 58.1 ypg
2008- 175 for 719 yds, 5 tds, 4.1 ypa, 59.9 ypg.
2003-12 G, 6 GS, 84/143 (58.7%), 1,155 yds, 8.1 ypa, 6 tds, 7 ints, 96.3 ypg, 130.6 rating
2004-12 G, 12 GS, 148/250 (59.2%), 1,849 yds, 7.4 ypa, 12 tds, 11 ints, 128.4 ypg, 128.4 rating
2005-13 G, 13 GS, 212/325 (65.2%), 3,036 yds, 9.3 ypa, 26 td, 10 ints, 233.5 ypg, 163.9 rating.
2003- 135 rushes for 998 yds, 11 tds, 7.4 ypa, 83.1 ypg
2004-167 for 1,079 yds, 14 tds, 6.5 ypa, 89.9 ypg
2005-155 for 1,050 yds, 12 tds, 6.8 ypa, 80.7 ypg
Now, looking at those two lines you can draw a couple conclusions. The most obvious is that Vince Young is clearly better than Juice Williams and you might be quick to jump to the conclusion that I'm a moron. Vince clearly was much more effective when he chose to pull the ball down and run with it, although I can assure you from watching both Texas during Young's career and Illinois for most of my lifetime that Illinois' offensive line has not been anywhere near as effective for Juice as Texas' was for Vince. As for the passing numbers, however, if you throw out their freshmen years, where Vince split playing time with Chance Mock on a 10-3 Texas squad and Juice learned under fire for a 2-10 Illini team, and only look at their sophomore and junior years (Vince left for the NFL before his senior year), it breaks down like this:
372/648 (57.4%),7.6 ypa, 4,916 yds,35 tds/29 ints, 130.0 Rating
360/575 (62.6%),8.4 ypa, 4,885 yds,38 tds/21 ints, 148.5 Rating
Again, Vince's numbers are still better but the two lines are similar in most areas, with Vince's better completion % being the greatest difference.
All of this brings me to my point. While some feel Juice has progressed slowly or has failed to live up to his hype, in many ways his career progression when compared to a quarterback with a similar skill set in Vince Young seems to have set him up for a hell of a senior year, assuming certain things go his way. These things include:
1. The offensive line. Last year Illinois had one of the youngest offensive lines in the conference, and it showed. They failed to open up rushing lanes for Juce and running back Daniel Dufrene, which put more pressure on Juice to win games with his arm. They also allowed Juice to be sacked 25 times and forced him to hurry throws in many other games (not to mention that since college football subtracts yards lost on sacks from rushing totals for some inane reason, they may have cost Juice up to 163 yards rushing). If the Illini get better play from the offensive line this year, an active running game would take the pressure off of Juice, he'd have more time in the pocket to improve his decision making and accuracy, and he'd be able to rack up more of his own rushing yards. It's not impossible that this could allow Juice to become the third college quarterback with a 3,000 yd passing/1,000 yd rushing season (Vince Young in 2005 and Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour in 2007 are the other two).
2. If Danny Dufrene (or the other backs) step up as well. I realize I blamed a lot of the runningbacks' struggles last year on the line, but much of it was their fault as well. Dufrene was inconsistent at best last year and failed to show the burst that he had shown as the change of pace back to Rashard Mendenhall in 2007. Dufrene or one of the other backs must step up and become a consistent threat in order to prevent other teams from gameplanning solely around Juice.
3. Better offensive playcalling. As I sarcastically noted above, even though Illinois ranked 19th in the nation in total offense (but certainly not scoring, as a team like Iowa scored 30.3 ppg to Illinois 28.7, despite the Illini gaining nearly 65 more yards per game), far too often the Locksley/Zook brain trust seemed hellbent on calling the option at all costs, even when team's like Iowa and Wisconsin stuffed the ever-loving shit out of it, and their passing acumen seemed limited to chucking it up for grabs somewhere near Arrelious Benn or swinging it out to Dufrene. Hopefully Schultz can call a much more effective game.
4. An improved defense. The Illini struggled mightily on defense last season. They allowed 26.6 ppg, good for 9th out of the 11 Big Ten teams. They were a mediocre 6th in total yards allowed per game with 350.3, they were also 6th against the pass, 7th in sacks, and tied for dead last in interceptions, with 6. There is room for hope though, as the team was among the youngest in the conference on that side of the ball, and they return most of their starters on defense. If the defense can actually hold teams in place next year and take the pressure off of both Juice and the coaching staff, that will go a long way in determining the season Juice and the team will have.
Obviously those are four huge "ifs," but all four are attainable and have significant potential to improve this year. With those improvements in place and Juice stepping up in his senior year, he could generate a great deal of buzz and finally play up to his enormous potential.
Then what would happen next? Well with his rocket arm and outstanding mobility surely a great senior year would at least place him in the conversation about the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. Some team will most likely pick him, tantalized by his talent, and here he will truly live up to the Vince Young comparisons by showing off his horrible mechanics and decision making, forcing throws, and eventually being benched for a racist journeyman.