URBANA — Kurt Kittner didn’t step on the field and start right away at Illinois. Neither did Juice Williams. Nor Nathan Scheelhaase.
It takes time to become a Big Ten quarterback. Isaiah Williams is finding that out.
Fortunately, the freshman from St. Louis Trinity Catholic has all sorts of helping hands. They are offering support. And charting his progress.
Of course, there is his head coach Lovie Smith. Now the team’s defensive coordinator, he spends a chunk of practice time with the offense, too.
There is Illini offensive coordinator Rod Smith,who thinks Williams has the skill set to run his offense. If not now, then in the near future.
And there is Illini tight ends coach Cory Patterson, who knew Williams back in the day. Patterson coached Williams at Trinity before joining Smith’s staff in 2018.
Patterson keeps a constant watch on his protege.
“He’s adjusting,” Patterson said. “Kind of like you think a freshman would. He’s kind of spinning a little bit. He’s got a lot going on.”
Patterson is careful not to interfere with Rod Smith’s work.
“Rod’s his coach,” Patterson said. “Rod makes the call. I’m just here for a little support here and there. Sometimes, I’m a little pushy.”
Patterson and Williams are close. The coach talks to the player every day. Frankly.
“It’s a lot more tough love than anything,” Patterson said. “He responds to it well. He’ll be fine. He responds to it the way he should.”
Patterson sees Williams make improvement each day.
“I do picture him playing,” Patterson said. “He’ll definitely get on the field.”
Learning the offense is the most difficult part of the transition.
“It’s a big jump from high school to college,” Patterson said.
Patterson knows the feeling. He went from high school head coach to college assistant in 2018.
“Ten practices in last year, I was swimming, too,” Patterson said. “I definitely get it.”
Rod Smith appreciates Patterson’s ties to Williams.
“I think it’s tremendous because there is a trust factor there,” Smith said. “As much as I love Isaiah Williams, and we have a great relationship, I can never replace that bond he’s got with Cory. That bond is huge.
“There is a comfort level there that I’m sure if Isaiah is ever struggling, he can go to Cory.”
Smith encourages Patterson to stay involved with Williams. Always.
“Like I told Cory, ‘Shoot, I coach him, but you’re still his coach. Don’t be afraid to talk to him,’” Smith said.
If a player wants to seek advice from another coach on the staff, Smith is for it.
“I have no ego when it comes to that,” Smith said. “We’re all in this together. We’re on the same team. I may ask Cory to talk to him. I want what’s best for the kid. If I’m not getting through to a young man and maybe Cory can, I am absolutely going to use Cory to get to him. I’m going to do the same thing for him.”
Step by step
Williams is learning how to play college football. Just like Kittner, Juice Williams and Scheelhaase before him. It’s part of the deal.
“He’s in that developmental stage that every freshman goes through,” Rod Smith said. “He’s just working through it right now. It can be frustrating at times. And at times it can be exhilarating, because at times you see the flashes. And then also you see the warts sometimes, too.”
None of it surprises Smith. He is looking forward to the freshman’s advancement.
“The more he gets comfortable, the better off he’ll be as far as what we all expect him to be,” Smith said. “I’m not down on Isaiah at all. I know what he’s going through. I’ve been through those at this age. And I wasn’t near as athletic as Isaiah Williams.”
Eventually, it will click. Kittner and Juice Williams moved into the lineup four games into their rookie years. Scheelhaase redshirted his first season, then became the full-time starter after that.
“It’s just a matter of when that time is,” Smith said. “We’ll all know when Isaiah’s ready to play. Whether that’s now. Whether that’s in two weeks. Whether that’s in a month. We’ll know. Isaiah’s got a skill set that’s unique to a lot of the guys in my room right now. He brings something other kids don’t have.”
Williams is about where Smith thought he would be after two weeks of training camp.
“Isaiah has had some good days. He’s had some days where he looks like a freshman,” Smith said. “I could say that about every other kid that’s ever been a freshman. Not one time has a freshman come in and just lit it up like a veteran. It doesn’t happen. But this is how you learn. This is the most critical point in his tenure.”