URBANA — Justice Williams already had one position switch under his belt when he approached Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith this offseason to volunteer in making another.
The linebacker turned wide receiver saw a need and offered to move a second time to tight end for his final season.
“I went up to coach after I heard about the Luke Ford situation,” Williams said. Ford, a Georgia transfer, was denied immediately eligibility in April, and that decision was upheld in June after an appeal.
“I thought I could help out,” Williams continued. “As you can see, it’s kind of stuck since then. It’s my last year, so really anything I can to help my team win and get on the field and enjoy my last year. With my linebacker background, I figured tight end was the linebacker on offense. There’s a lot of hitting. I just get back to what I’m used to.”
Williams joined the Illini in 2015 as a linebacker out of Wakeland High School in Frisco, Texas. After redshirting as a true freshman, he played in 23 games with one start at his first position during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. The switch to offense ahead of the 2018 season saw him make one start at receiver and play in all 12 games last fall, making one reception for 4 yards against Kent State in the season opener.
“Definitely when I graduated (high school) I didn’t imagine switching (two) times, but everything happens for a reason,” Williams said. “I’ve just got high hopes going into this season. I think I’ll bring a little more athleticism than some of our tight ends.
“Being the linebacker and then a receiver, I’m a little quicker than those guys. They’re a little bigger and stronger than I am, so I figure we complement each other well. I’ve learned plenty from them, and hope I’m teaching them a bunch as well.”
Illinois tight ends coach Cory Patterson has been pleased with what Williams has shown so far during training camp. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Texan probably trails only sophomore Daniel Barker atop the depth chart.
“Justice is just a hard-working guy that wants to get on the field,” Patterson said. “He found himself a little niche now, and I’m happy to have him. It’s a little rare, but he’s a rare guy. He’s willing to do anything to help the team, and I’m excited about it.
“He’s not fearing too much. I’m just happy to have him over because he’s a guy that’s going to be helpful when we get him inside the hip and when we flex him.”
Illinois’ last linebacker to tight end switch worked pretty well. Austin Roberts might not have caught many passes in his Illini career — just four for 19 yards — but he found a place in Smith’s offense with eight starts in 2018.
“I loved Austin and watched him do it all last year,” Williams said. “He taught me a good little bit.”
Patterson likes the skill set Williams brings with his diverse past at Illinois.
“I’ll take guys like that all the time,” the second-year tight ends coach said. “Linebackers are going to be tough, and the receiver guys run good routes. I’m excited to have him. I think he’ll be a mismatch for some guys.”
Williams showed an ability to make plays in the passing game last year during training camp as a wide receiver. That hasn’t changed in the last week-plus as he continues to haul in passes, and while he still enjoys that part of his new position, he knows that’s not his sole focus. Creating running lanes for Reggie Corbin, Mike Epstein, Dre Brown and the host of other Illini running backs is in his sights as well.
“Who doesn’t like catching touchdowns?” Williams said. “But definitely a lot more blocking now, which I don’t mind. If it helps Reggie, Dre, Mike and all those boys score, then I’m all for it.”