CHAMPAIGN — Isaiah Williams led his JFL team to the Super Bowl in seventh grade. Yet he still wanted to move back to wide receiver from quarterback.
More success as an eighth grade quarterback with, in his words, some “insane numbers” didn’t really change his mind about what position he wanted to play.
That’s when the outside voices started getting louder, too. High school players were bigger. Faster. Stronger.
Williams heard plenty of times that he couldn’t be a high school quarterback, but he still had a breakout freshman season at Trinity Catholic in St. Louis.
“I was just going out there and playing quarterback,” Williams said. “I never really trained as a quarterback. Then, my sophomore year I got my first couple offers at quarterback and was like, ‘That’s what I really want to do.’”
Fast forward a few years and Williams is in the thick of a quarterback competition at Illinois. The Illini are just five days into training camp, but the 5-foot-10, 180-pound true freshman has as good a chance as any quarterback on the roster of grabbing that No. 1 spot heading into the Aug. 31 season opener against Akron.
Proving his doubters wrong is part of Williams’ motivation.
“There were people that told me I would never play quarterback in high school,” Williams said during the Illini’s media day event on Tuesday afternoon, the only day true freshmen are allowed to speak with the media until the season starts, according to a team policy. “There were people who told me I would never play a down in college. College coaches told me that. It made me go work harder. It made me go in the lab and keep training as a quarterback. I’m going to be one of the best to do this when it’s all said and done. That’s the plan.”
Williams has made a believer out of his teammates through summer workouts and the first four practices of training camp. The plays he makes reminds Kyron Cumby, a fellow freshman from Plano, Texas, of another Texan — 2018 Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 NFL draft pick Kyler Murray.
“I grew up around Kyler Murray in the DFW,” Cumby said. “I saw him play a lot of times. (Williams) brings a dynamic like that, but he’s young. It’s going to take him time to learn things that experience brings to you. ... He’s the type of guy that every time you see him on the field, he seems to surprise you and opens your eyes.”
Freshman wide receiver Casey Washington was succinct in his praise of Williams.
“He’s good,” Washington said. “Coming in here he was highly recruited, and he’s living up to it. From 7-on-7 during the summer, we’ve got a little connection going. It’s fun playing with that guy.”
Williams is competing with Michigan transfer Brandon Peters and redshirt freshmen Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor for that starting spot. Illinois added Peters this summer to get a veteran presence in the quarterback room and is in the same boat as Williams in terms of adapting to offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s system.
“He’s learning the playbook just like me, but he uses different strategies,” Williams said of Peters. “I’m picking up on those strategies, how he throws the ball. Almost everything. I’m just watching and learning from him.
“That’s every single quarterback on the team. I’m learning from every quarterback on the team. I’m the young guy, so I want to see how everybody do things and then do it my own way.”
That’s basically what Lovie Smith wanted to happen when he pursued a veteran transfer quarterback. Peters’ presence is important now, but the way the Illinois coach speaks about Williams gives a fairly clear picture of what he wants long term at quarterback.
“Just to show a young, talented — our future — player in Isaiah Williams how to do things,” Smith said. “That’s the ideal quarterback room you would like. A guy that’s done it. Another guy in position to come up with a good tutor, a good mentor, a good teacher taking the guys at the proper pace that they should go.”
What Williams could bring the Illini is some long term stability at quarterback. They haven’t really had it so far in Smith’s tenure, with this year’s training camp battle the second straight.
“If you’re answering, ‘OK, who’s the quarterback?’ every year, I don’t think that’s a good situation,” Smith said. “As we solidify our program, that won’t be the case. At the same time, as you’re getting that position right, it’s good to have good competition and good options. That’s what we have in that room.”