CHAMPAIGN — The first week of Illinois football training camp has revealed two different sides of Isaiah Williams.
One aspect is the freshman quarterback that hasn’t been free of struggles during individual drill work and 7-on-7.
The other facet is also the dynamic athlete that emerges during full 11-on-11 action, making plays with his feet. And Williams is aware of the occasional difference in his level of play.
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.
“I feel like I’m just overthinking sometimes,” Williams said. “I just need to go out there and just play. When 11-on-11 comes, you can’t do nothing but just play. I feel like that’s when I’m at my best when it’s 11-on-11. I can do what I do best and show everything.”
It’s hard to argue Williams isn’t better when the proverbial lights come on. He made one of the best plays of the early days of camp Monday when he got junior cornerback Nate Hobbs in the air biting on a pump fake and then juked Southern California transfer defensive end Wole Betiku.
“He hit the ol’ cutback,” Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. “Wole said if he was going full speed he would have kamikaze tackled him. I said, ‘Wole, you’d still be reaching for air and grass.’”
Smith said Williams’ skill set differentiates him from the rest of the Illinois quarterbacks. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound St. Louis native is more elusive than any other quarterback on the roster.
What’s made Williams better during the full team work so far in training camp, though, is the feel he has for the game. When Illinois goes 7-on-7, there’s more emphasis put on fundamentals, like making the right reads and getting timing right with the receivers. No pass rush makes a difference.
“But when you go 11-on-11, not that that goes out the window, but there’s a sense of feeling space, feeling holes, feeling pressure,” Smith said. “That kid just does it. He feels things. He feels the game of football.
“He may not know what’s going on, but he’s got an ability to get out of trouble and feel things in space and take off or make throws because he keeps his eyes downfield. He don’t know what he’s doing yet completely, but he’s still making plays. That’s a good sign.”
Smith compared Williams as a freshman with Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate. Smith coached Tate with the Wildcats in 2016 and 2017. That feel for the game as a true freshman is a rarity.
“The good ones have it,” Smith said. “Khalil Tate had it. Khalil Tate didn’t know what he was doing his first year, but the same thing. You get him on the football field and it’s an 11-on-11 drill and he was making plays left and right.
“Same thing with Isaiah. Isaiah probably knows more than what Khalil did at this point in time and is making the same type of plays on the field in 11-on-11 drills.”
Williams doesn’t shy away from the fact he’s still learning. That was his expectation for his first training camp. He had to learn the offense, learn to read defenses. The former four-star recruit expected some struggles, too.
“I have felt it, but I’m not getting discouraged about it,” Williams said. “I’m just getting better every single day and learning. That’s the biggest thing for me — to learn everything and soak everything up.”
Williams is in the thick of a quarterback competition for the first time in his football career. He was the only option playing in middle school for now-Illinois tight ends coach Cory Patterson. Then he grew into the clear option at Trinity Catholic.
“Competition brings the best out of me,” he said. “It makes me better, honestly. It hasn’t been a big thing for me. I’m not really too focused on that. I’m worried about me.
“I don’t want nothing guaranteed. I don’t want nothing given to me. I knew coming in the one thing I had to focus on was just me working hard and learning everything. I know my time is going to come. It’s just God’s plan, so right now I just wanted to come in and learn everything.”
Williams doesn’t see his freshman season at Illinois as creating pressure on him. He knows it’s there, of course. Fans want to see the highest-ranked freshman quarterback since Juice Williams in 2006 on the field. This Isaiah Williams has a mature approach to the start of his college career.
“It has been kind of hard because everybody expects you to start,” he said. “You’ve got to do this. You’ve got to do that. And they want you to do it early. That’s not the same for everybody.
“If it’s my sophomore year or my junior year when my time comes, I just want to be prepared. Right now, I just want to be prepared. That’s the main thing. I’m not really worried about starting right now or anything. I’m just being prepared for when my name gets called. Then the show is on.”