Since the moment he stepped foot on campus, Isaiah Williams has garnered plenty of attention. The dynamic playmaker from St. Louis switched over from quarterback this spring after Bret Bielema took the helm of the Illini program, and the early results have been promising. News-Gazette contributor Gavin Good checked in with Williams about how he is feeling in his third season in Champaign, advice he has for the younger generation and his thoughts about the beginning of name, image and likeness rights for college athletes.
Did you think about changing numbers when you switched to receiver?
Switching numbers never came up, I always wanted to keep No. 1. It’s been my number since I was 6 years old, so it didn’t really come up, like, ‘Let me switch my jersey number, too.’
What is the Williams family’s presence like at Illinois games?
They’re always at the games. Every week, I always need more tickets. I never get enough. Last week my mom, my grandmother, my younger cousins, my younger siblings, my father and his wife, they all came up. I had a nice crew up here.
What has been the best moment of your career at Illinois so far?
I say my best moment is my faith, actually. Learning about God, that’s been the best moment I’ve had, actually finding God and diving into the word and my faith.
Has there been anyone in particular that has helped you with that?
Jason Epperson, he’s the team chaplain, and he’s the pastor at CU Church (in Urbana). And then, I have James Moore. Those two guys, when I say they kind of opened my eyes, the way I view things ... a lot of things, I give thanks to them. They’re helping me become the man I am. Getting insight from those two and learning from those two, it’s been a blessing.
Have you thought about how your extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19 could affect your career at Illinois and your future? A lot of players are getting some more time in college.
Yeah. Me switching positions, it kind of happened at the perfect time. We had the COVID year, then I came back and now I’ve kind of got four more years to really learn the receiver position. But this year, kind of get comfortable playing receiver and then just steady growing, year-by-year. It’s different than if I would have switched without, and I had like two, maybe three more years. There’s a difference. I want to be good now, but there’s more time for me to get even better, if that makes sense.
You’ve known Illinois running backs coach Cory Patterson for a long time. How has your relationship with your former high school coach evolved?
The relationship just keeps growing. He has been a father figure to me as long as I can remember, since I was six. Somebody I just look up to. Somebody who just guided me. He always kept me on the right path, and it’s just a blessing that I get to do college with him, too. Just having him here, it makes me more comfortable.
There’s a ton of talk with name, image and likeness rules and how that’s changing life for college athletes. How has that affected you so far?
With NIL, I have a couple of deals. But right now, that’s not my focus. That’s something after the season that I’m going to look more into, but right now, I just really want to focus on ball. Some of the deals I turned down and some are still (up) in the air. I just really want to focus on football. It’s a blessing, but at some point too, I feel like it’s a distraction. It’s a lot. It’s something I need to figure out how to leverage, so that’s something I want to wait until after the season to dive into it. I want to learn how to make good deals, like what is a good deal? And just getting myself with people who actually have the same vision that I have. I don’t want to make deals just to make deals, that’s my biggest thing. Honestly, I don’t know enough about it. And a lot of people around me, they don’t know too much about it either. So it’s something I actually want to educate myself on before I actually dive into it.
A lot of young Illinois fans look up to you. What life advice do you have for them?
One thing is that sometimes staying out the mix and being different is a good thing. That’s the biggest thing. When I was younger, I was always looking for that one person like to look up to, that one person who I can follow. Even when I got here, it always happened that I had positive role models. I had people that I could look up to that were doing the right thing, so it kept me on the right path.
Did you have any advice for Art Sitkowski when he replaced Brandon Peters?
I told the entire offense when were in the huddle before we came out, I was like, ‘Bro, we good.’ We just rallied behind Art, and I told him, ‘We got your back no matter what. We behind you.’ I knew what Art could do. I knew the type of guy he was, the type of swagger he brought to the team. I already knew once he got his shot, we were going to be behind him because of his swagger and the moxie he brings.
What effect has receivers coach George McDonald had on you?
He’s probably the first coach I ever had that is hard on me all the time. If it’s a good play, that ain’t good enough. But I know that’s because he wants more. I feel like when he sees potential, he’s going to push them buttons and push your limits. He probably sees some things in me that I probably don’t see. It’s tough love, but it’s something that I embrace, because I understand he means it out of love.
What’s your favorite place to eat around town?
I gotta go with… let me see, let me see. Yeah, I gotta go with Oishi. You can’t go wrong with the crab rangoons, and then you’ve gotta do the shrimp and the lobster with the yum yum sauce. You can’t go wrong.