CHAMPAIGN – The knee is getting there. Probably about 70 percent. Close enough for Sirod Williams to start dreaming about Missouri.
Of course, it's the same dream he had all last summer. He would be in the starting lineup at the Edward Jones Dome, taking shots at Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel.
The dream got pushed back a year on Aug. 9. That's the day Williams was tussling with a center during an Illini practice. It was the last play of the practice. A linebacker accidentally ran into the defensive tackle from behind. Williams immediately felt the pain in his right knee.
"I knew something was wrong," Williams said. "I didn't want to walk. And I didn't want the doctor to look at me."
He was hoping it would be an MCL tear, costing him about a month on the field. But the news wasn't that good. Williams had suffered a torn ACL, an injury he had on his left knee in high school.
"It was pretty crushing," Williams said. "I'm not an emotional guy, but I broke down when I heard about that.
"After I heard the bad news, there was about a month of sorrow. But I didn't really let people see that I was sad."
Illinois strength coach Lou Hernandez helped Williams get past the disappointment. Hernandez pointed out the positives.
His teammates were supportive. Josh Brent was in the room when Williams found out the severity of the injury.
"Josh was asleep, but he overheard," Williams said. "He was like, 'Wow.' He experienced the bad news with me."
Williams watched from the sidelines in 2008 as the team went 5-7. He felt helpless.
"I thought we were going to have a very good season," Williams said. "I thought people on D-line were going to play better than they did. I got very frustrated."
Williams doesn't want that frustration again. He has worked hard to get back. The biggest hurdle is mental.
"I just worry about injuring it at first," Williams said. "Every new thing that I do, like going on the field or squatting, I was kind of nervous. Now, it's feeling real good."
The pain in the knee is gone. Williams puts ice on it after each workout, which helps.
"I think I'm ahead of the curve," Williams said. "When I get back to 100 percent, I think I'll be stronger."
With Brent suspended during spring practice, the Illini need Williams for both his talent and experience.
Gradually, Williams is being worked back in. He went 19 plays during the scrimmage at Oak Park-River Forest.
"That was a big step for me," Williams said.
"The biggest thing with Sirod is he's got to feel comfortable with it," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "Any time you're coming off a knee like that he's got to develop the confidence in it. And he will. He's getting better."
Williams plans to take advantage of the extra year.
"I'm going to bring some leadership," Williams said. "I think I can help coach the young guys."
The countdown to Sept. 5 has already started. That's when Williams plays against Missouri.
"I've been waiting for this moment for two years," Williams said.
Happy, healthy return
Sirod Williams isn’t the first Illini to try to return from a serious injury. Here are three players who made it all the way back:
Xavier Fulton (missed 2006) — Missed season allowed coaches to move him from defensive line to offensive line, where he started two years at left tackle.
Brandon Lloyd (missed 2000) — Broken leg suffered in summer mishap gave future pro a year to improve overall strength. A star for 2001 Big Ten title team.
Bobby Jackson (missed 1999) — Without sitting the year, star safety wouldn’t have been on 2001 Big Ten championship team.