CHAMPAIGN – Vocational's 220-pound Isiah "Juice" Williams swept in on a water slide of hype from Chicago this summer, and his bullet passes immediately became the talk of informal Illini football workouts.
The irony of July activity is that, with NCAA rules preventing Illini coaches from attending, Williams is being "coached" by the individual he'll attempt to beat out for the quarterback position.
Fifth-year senior Tim Brasic is frequently seen giving instructions as he alternates with Williams and another rangy rookie, Eddie McGee, with the first group in 7-on-7 passing drills.
"When you're involved in assisting other people, it helps everyone to understand the importance of timing and spacing," Brasic said. "Coach (Mike) Locksley always preaches that to us. The whole play can be disrupted by being a yard short or not where you're supposed to be."
If Williams is the quarterback of the future, Brasic is the man for the moment. He'll start against Eastern Illinois on Sept. 2.
Will Williams get in? How long will it take for him to recognize defenses? Will he learn to take something off short passes to make them more catchable? How fast can he catch up on the mental side? Brasic has a huge advantage after starting 11 games last season. To replace him early with a rookie might jeopardize the Illini in "winnable" opportunities in September and October.
"I'm watching more film, and I have a better understanding of what I'm looking for," Brasic said. "When I was young, I didn't know how important it was. It helps to have (former QB) Chris Pazan as a friend and a mentor in there with me. We came to Illinois together, and he has decided to go into coaching. He knows a lot about the game."
Brasic relaxed Tuesday to discuss the upcoming season. The Q&A follows:
Q: Have you graduated?
A: "I have 12 hours to go, and I'll be graduating this fall."
Q: What was the academic breakdown that caused Ron Zook to withhold you from the first week of spring practice?
A: "I fell behind. I was taking a five-hour foreign language course that changed instructors in the middle, and I got way behind. I received a D that brought my grade-point average way down. I had to get busy."
Q: Fans worry about you carrying the ball as often as you did last year (151 rushes). Isn't that dangerous?
A: "Sometimes the play breaks down and you have to run. I'm stronger. I played at 197 pounds last year, and now I'm between 210 and 212, and I maintained my workouts without losing speed or agility. The added muscle is mostly in my lower body through squats and lifting. But I don't want to run unless I have to. I think being more comfortable with the offense and knowing my reads will help. I compare it to high school when I rushed a lot as a junior and reduced that by half as a senior. We have good running backs here, and I want to get the ball in the hands of our playmakers."
Q: You didn't play for three years. How has your approach to the game changed?
A: "It's unbelievable. Compared to last summer, it's like night and day. Being in the new offense for a year and understanding game speed is so important. In the opener against Rutgers, it was like there were 12 defenders on the field. Everything started slowing down in the second half against Rutgers. There's no way to experience that without actually playing."
Q: How did you handle three years on the sideline?
A: "Coach (Ron) Turner used a mix of all the quarterbacks except me. That was the hardest part. We weren't doing well and I figured, 'What did we have to lose?' I got reps with the first unit during the week of the Minnesota game in my redshirt sophomore year (2004). I was excited, and I thought I'd get in. We lost 45-0, but I got lost in the mix of things. I wondered if I'd ever get a chance, and my family helped me get through it. I was beginning to think about transferring but, thankfully, this new staff came in and offered an offense that I was familiar with. In high school, we ran the spread (at Riverside-Brookfield)."
Q: You're big on family. Tell us about your tattoos.
A: "I have four. The one over my heart is a passage that my parents took from the Bible about believing in God and believing in your dreams. It's in my dad's cursive handwriting. I have my parents' initials on both arms, and in the back I have a cross with the initials of my two sisters and brother."
Q: You took some nasty hits last season. Was there ever a time when you felt you couldn't go on?
A: "No, but I hurt my thumb pretty bad in the final game against Northwestern and I couldn't grip a ball for two or three weeks afterward, so I wouldn't have been able to play the next week. It wasn't even a hit. I went to dive on a ball and hurt it. Even in high school, that's the kind of injuries I've always had. The big, square hits on the body have never bothered me."
Q: In directing 7-on-7 drills four times a week, which new players have jumped out at you?
A: "First of all, I'd say the two tight ends (Jeff Cumberland and Michael Hoomanawanui). They are big targets, and they can run and catch. When you can stretch the field vertically as a tight end, it's a big advantage. Big Ten teams like Minnesota have always been good at doing that."
Q: With 16 wide receivers on the squad, who's going to emerge from the pack?
A: "Jacob Willis came on strong in the spring, but I like the way Jody Ellis and DaJuan Warren are running routes this summer. We've split up the team into two groups, and Ellis and Warren are running 50 to 60 sprints in every 7-on-7 session. They've gained a lot of strength and will be good downfield blockers in our running attack. Jody didn't move to receiver last year until the second week at Rantoul, and he was going strong until he got hurt (broken collarbone after six games). If I had to choose one guy to be a surprise this year, I'd pick Jody. His mentality is unreal."
Q: Lanky rookie Joe Morgan had a spectacular 24-foot long jump in the Ohio state track meet. He declined an Ohio State offer. Is he the fastest on the team and can he play?
A: "We'll definitely have him in there at times. Rashard Mendenhall has been our fastest player for two years, but Morgan outran him in the 40 this summer, and Cumberland at 230 pounds was right alongside Rashard. Morgan is a Kyle Hudson type. But he's not fully certain about his routes, and he's still in the learning stage."
Q: Enthusiasm is strong on campus. You call the new defensive backs the best you've seen here in five years. The squad is obviously improved physically. But the preseason magazines still pick Illinois 10th or 11th in the Big Ten.
A: "That's all right. We like being the underdog. It's good to go in with a chip on your shoulder. I've been a winner in the past, and I intend to go out that way. You can't worry about the magazines and the stuff you guys focus on."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.