“If you ask any great player or great quarterback, there's a certain inner confidence that you're as good as anybody. But you can't say who is the absolute best. To be considered is special in itself.”
Despite their dramatic turnaround in 2007, the Fighting Illini got very average play from the quarterback position.
During the first half of the season, starter Juice Williams shared time with freshman Eddie McGee. McGee, the 6-4 200 lb signal caller is faster, has a better arm, and is an overall better athlete than Williams, but he cannot run Mike Locksley’s spread offense nearly as well, which is the main reason Juice stayed the starter the whole year. Williams established himself as the full-time quarterback when he went 41-66 for 567 yards, 7 touchdowns, as well as 339 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground in a three game stretch to finish the regular season, including a 28-21 upset win over #1 Ohio State.
At times, Juice was masterful, playing like a magician, running the spread beautifully, keeping the defenses honest with crisp chain moving passes, as well as tucking it in and running when needed. At other times in the season though, he looked lost, throwing extremely inaccurate balls, seemingly the weak link in an explosive offensive led by NFL bound Rashard Mendenhall, and forcing the coaching staff to alternate quarterbacks in the middle of games. Many times his play caused Illini fans to think, “How awesome would we be with a decent quarterback?”
Winning in spite of Juice became a theme through much of the season, allowing McGee to get major playing time. McGee got legitimate playing time in the Syracuse, Penn St, Iowa, and Michigan games. He often played like a raw, inexperienced player, but one who could make nearly every throw on the field, and one who could also use his explosiveness and speed to make big plays when nothing else was developing. In Illinois’ first statement win, at home against Penn State, Juice started off hot but really cooled down late in the game (a common theme). Zook put in McGee, and although he didn’t do anything spectacular, his 53-yard rush gave the Illini a spark—something they seemed to get whenever McGee was placed in a game last season.
Providing a spark was not all the Washington D.C native could do in 2007. In the opener against Missouri, Juice got injured early in the game, and McGee came in and was effective in the passing game, throwing for 257 yards and a touchdown as well as a rushing touchdown, but with four turnovers. His lack of football intelligence and his freshman mistakes never allowed the coaching staff to put him in full time, but he showed potential in almost every game he played.
As if a two player quarterback controversy isn’t enough, the Illini bring in Jacob Charest next year, who according to Scout.com is the 23 ranked quarterback in the class and has very good decision making, release, and mental toughness, while needing to improve on mobility and technique. His ability to throw the ball might make the offense much more prolific, and his abilities make many fans consider a full time two quarterback system a la Tim Tebow and Chris Leak. Charest would be the starter and the main passer, while Williams or McGee (only one of them) would come in as a change of pace quarterback who runs options and sneaks and occasional throws. I believe this is the best option if Charest can truly throw the ball with precision, as Juice’s mastery of the spread and Charest’s arm would give defenses fits. Also, talented wide receivers like Rejus Benn and Jeff Cumberland could be better utilized.
A major problem with this system is that Charest will be a true freshman next fall, and he will likely need time to develop into the prolific passer he can be. A two-quarterback system might stunt Charest’s growth as a player, and it will likely not be productive with a young, inexperienced freshman. In Florida’s successful tandem in 2006, Chris Leak was a veteran four-year starter, and his abilities and decision-making were very mature—something Charest will most likely lack next year. Tim Tebow, the scrambler, was a true freshman, but it isn’t fair to compare our players to him, as he is maybe one of the most talented college football players ever, and will have a legitimate chance to win three Heismans.
Taking that into consideration, the two-quarterback system is probably a year away from being effective. So who should be the starter?
Yes, Juice is the most popular. Yes, he has the signature nickname. Yes, he has potential to be an accomplished four-year starter that goes down as one of the best Illini quarterbacks of all time. And yes, at this time he is a better fit for the offense than McGee and Charest--if just because of his experience. According to beat writer Bob Ausmussen, “Juice Williams will be the starting quarterback, but Eddie McGee will push him. If it works the way the coaches hope, Juice will be the starter the next two years, with McGee and Charest battling for the starting spot in 2010.”
Overall, Juice is the better option not only for the short term but also for the next two years. Despite being inconsistent, Juice was dramatically improved over his freshman season:
He improved drastically in nearly every statistic, and if he continues this type of growth, his stats should be close to this in 2008:
If he can put up these stats, the Illini will be fighting for the Big Ten title, and maybe more. He needs to devote himself, and come to spring practices looking and playing like a leader—another big factor. With the departure of Mendenhall and Leman, Juice has set himself in position to become the true leader of the team, something he can earn with good play. His leadership could potentially be more important than his mistakes during the game, and I don’t see this team having a true player to look up to if McGee or Charest is the starting quarterback, something that would greatly affect their play in 2008.
Assuming all three work their tail off in the off-season, Zook needs to evaluate each player: Has Juice kept maturing? Has McGee got the spread down? Is Charest ready to be a factor in the Big Ten? Since I don’t believe Charest will be ready, it will likely come down to McGee vs. Juice, and if both show a similar or close skill set, Juice needs to be put in as the full time starter, as his leadership can take this team further than Eddie McGee can.
Don’t underestimate leadership. The players still remember Juice’s heroics on national TV at the #1 team in the country. They still remember all the key 3rd down runs to keep the ball and keep the clock moving, and how he ran the offense the last three games of the regular season. Juice has already shown he can do it—know he needs to step up and do it consistently.
For a team so quarterback drought since the end of the Kurt Kittner era, it’s a privilege to have such options at the quarterback position. With each quarterback having different strengths and weaknesses, it will be a tough call, but at the end of the day, without any major setbacks, Juice Williams needs to be quarterback of this team because of his leadership and the fact that he has shown he can play exceptionally. Dufrene is a very talented back, but it is a safe bet he won’t have the season Rashard Mendenhall did in 2007, and Juice needs to play better than he’s ever played before for this team to reach new heights--and I believe he will.
-Mas, Illinois Correspondent
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