We are less than 100 days from the start of college football, and even though Illinois has not been ranked or legitimately competitive in years, that doesn’t mean we are any less excited for the start of the season.
Who will start at quarterback?
The unknown is SCARY. AJ Bush (graduated) and MJ Rivers (transfer), the two primary quarterbacks from last season are gone. Our own Kyle Huisinga broke down the quarterback situation for 2019 and who is likely to start — and more importantly the idea of an outside transfer (Matt Fink, someone else) can still come in and compete for the job.
Ask the casual Illini fan if he/she has heard about incoming freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams — the answer is almost always yes. If it wasn’t for Lovie and Cory Patterson’s haul of the Trinity Catholic star, there would be far less enthusiasm for the coming season. Months before Williams takes a single snap at practice, he already has the Illinois fanbase buzzing for a turnaround.
It’s rare a true freshman quarterback comes in and sets the world on fire. Trevor Lawrence at Clemson and Tua Tagovailoa are extreme outliers, and two players who likely would have been taken ahead of the quarterbacks drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft last month had they been eligible.
A few things to remember...
Now this is no slight to I-Will, but let’s keep a few things in mind:
1. Isaiah Williams is 18 years old: Illini fans might be a bit spoiled in the sense that two quarterbacks in recent memory, Juice Williams and Nathan Scheelhaase started their freshman years and were successful. Juice Williams threw an abysmal sub-40 percent completion percentage as a freshman, but for the most part he was effective as a young Big Ten quarterback leading the Fighting Illini. There will be mistakes, lots of them. It will be frustrating at times. Keep calm and move on to the next game.
2. Lack of height, how he was recruited: Isaiah Williams is listed at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds. He’s beefing up, sure, but it’s important to remember that while we salivate at his scholarship offer list from some of the best programs in the country — practically none of those programs were recruiting Isaiah Williams to play quarterback. Lovie Smith did. Combine that with Champaign’s close proximity to Williams’ hometown of St. Louis — those were probably the top two factors in Williams committing to Illinois. Other, better programs have depth at the quarterback position that Illinois does not have and clearly that factored in to why Isaiah Williams was not coveted as a quarterback by other places — but it’s still a concern that he wasn’t sought after to play quarterback by the blue-chip programs.
3. Think of the help, or lack thereof: Reggie Corbin is an outstanding running back threat. Incoming freshman Kyron Cumby is supposed to be a touchdown-in-a-bottle. Part of what makes Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa so good is that they have elite-level offensive lines and wide receivers to throw to, many of whom are future first round NFL Draft picks. Isaiah Williams will be playing with a rather inexperienced wide receiving corps that has yet to prove itself. The NCAA denying tight end Luke Ford’s hardship waiver request does not help the situation. Illinois is going to have to get creative with its zone-read option plays and bubble screens to get those playmakers the ball in space.
Enjoy the ride and don’t get too down
Isaiah Williams is an ideal fit for what offensive coordinator Rod Smith wants out of his quarterbacks. There will be many lows and some highs this first season. Optimism is great, but remember, the Illini are relying on freshmen in key positions to lead the team.
The devastating, blowout losses to Purdue and Iowa in 2018 revealed weaknesses and issues that go far beyond just poor quarterback play. Expect improvement through moderate, slow-and-steady game-by-game progress.
Might we suggest...
Especially if Isaiah Williams is named the starter, my recommendation is this: approach the games and the season the way the players do. How many times have you heard the same old media/press conference adage: “It’s just one game. We’re focusing on [Insert name of next opponent].” It’s true.
Get excited. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of the upcoming opponent. Who are the best players and where are their weaknesses? Build up a base of knowledge for the week’s opponent and try to align your schedule with that of the student-athlete. The game comes. The game goes. Highs are highs and lows are lows. Then, do the same for the next week. Don’t think too far ahead or feel the weight of what might initially seem like a catastrophic loss or performance.
Onto the next game. Approach it like a player. It’s more fun that way.
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