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Isaiah Williams is so easy to root for

“1” is transforming into an inspirational leader for the Illini.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 28 Nebraska at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Isaiah Williams was one of the most ballyhooed recruits in the nation when he committed to the Fighting Illini in 2018. The then-QB was a consensus four-star recruit out of Trinity Catholic in St. Louis and had received offers from powerhouses like Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, LSU, and Penn State.

Williams literally could’ve played football ANYWHERE, yet he chose to stay close to home and suit up for the Illini.

For all the negative things that can be said about Lovie Smith, one thing he absolutely nailed was hiring Trinity’s then-head coach, Cory Patterson, as an assistant in 2018. Patterson built Trinity into one of the top prep programs in Missouri, going 27-6 in three seasons at the helm. Patterson has been an integral part in building the Illini’s recruiting pipeline in St. Louis, with I-Will being the capstone of those efforts.

Patterson and Williams have had a longstanding relationship — the two first met when Williams was only 6 years old. That bond was a major factor in getting the dynamic Williams to Champaign, a move the Illini are benefiting from, though maybe not as quickly as first expected.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Williams appeared in four games as a true freshman in 2019, and started four more at QB in 2020. He struggled as a passer, completing less than 40% of his throws (29-of-73). But Williams did display his speed and athleticism, rushing for 405 yards on 72 attempts (5.6 ypc).

I-Will was still listed as a QB when spring practices began in 2021, but it didn’t take long for Bret Bielema and his staff to realize where Williams could best tap into his potential, eventually converting him to a full-time receiver.

That decision proved to be both prudent and fruitful — the redshirt freshman led Illinois in catches (47) and receiving yards (525) this past season.

He’s embraced his new role as a pass-catcher and is a self-proclaimed “film rat.” Williams has also emerged as a locker room leader, thanks in part to moments like this:

I-Will was one of Illinois’ player representatives at Big Ten Media Days this week, and he was quite candid about his development, his relationship with the coaching staff, and what he’s learned about himself since arriving at Illinois.

On the difference between viewing film as a WR instead of as a QB:

“At quarterback, I’m looking at the entire field — the D-line all the way to the safeties. At receiver I’m really just focusing on the guy in front of me, focusing on little things the guy in front of me may do that give away a certain coverage.”

“At quarterback I didn’t watch myself too much, but as a receiver, now I watch myself a lot just to see how I could’ve set up a route better, how could I have created more separation if I did this one little thing.”

On his biggest accomplishment in college:

“I’d always put my identity in being the best player, just being a football player. So when I lost that, when I wasn’t the guy, when I didn’t start, I lost who I was.”

“So then I had to look in the mirror and find out who is Isaiah Williams the person...beyond football. That’s been my greatest discovery. Finding out I’m a family guy, I’m a man of faith, I like to read books, I like to go out with friends. Figuring that stuff out, that’s been my biggest discovery. Moving to receiver, I’d say that comes second.”

On the moment he knew that the conversion to WR was the right decision:

“Honestly, after my second practice of spring, after he switched me. I went back to Coach B [Bielema] like, ‘I’m good.’

“[Northwestern] was one of those games where it was like, ‘I can do this.’ That’s one thing that Coach Geo [George McDonald] always talks about. Like, ‘Okay, now we see that you can do it, now the next challenge is doing it consistently.’ So that’s where I’m going next. Can I do it week after week? And that’s been my challenge this offseason.”

On whether he thought of transferring following the positional change:

“For me, never. Honestly, I always looked at it like the reason why I wasn’t playing a lot was always me. I honestly don’t feel like me leaving was gonna fix me.”

“Maybe if it was for other reasons like I didn’t like the school, but I love the university, I love the coaches, I love the players. I connect with the fans. Everything about Illinois I love. So there was never a point for me to transfer, everything was like ‘just get better.’”

At the time of Williams’ commitment, it was viewed similarly to Ayo Dosunmu’s: here’s a top-flight recruit choosing Illinois, choosing to stay close to home instead of going to a higher-profile program. And as Ayo helped elevate Illini basketball, I-Will has a similar opportunity to revive Illinois football.

With a new offensive scheme, a new starting quarterback (potentially) in Tommy DeVito, and another year of development and film study, Williams and the Fighting Illini could be poised to take the next leap forward in 2022.

In football, a sport where even the star players aren’t outwardly visible (helmets, you know!), it’s difficult to get attached to specific people. You can have a favorite player, but seeing them and learning about them can be a tough task.

In less than 30 minutes of being around him, it was clear that Isaiah Williams is someone who is incredibly easy to root for — a local kid, a thoughtful kid, an immensely talented athlete constantly working to better himself on and off the field. “1” is an outstanding example of what a student-athlete can and should be.