The old Juice Williams wasn't bad, just not great often enough.
There was the Juice who completed only 39 percent of his passes as a freshman. There was also the Juice who improved to 57 percent as a sophomore. There was the Juice who was magnificent in that November upset at Ohio State. There was also the Juice who was yanked against Iowa in late October. Which Juice will appear in 2008?
|Juice Williams will be joined by Daniel Dufrene in the backfield after Rashard Mendenhall's departure. (Getty Images)|
"A lot of times his accuracy was always questioned," Zook said. "I go back to Troy Smith at Ohio State. There were questions about him as a sophomore. Then as a junior he looked pretty good. As a senior he was really good.
"I'm not saying he's going to win the Heisman but ..."
But ... Zook is going to the hyperbole card again. The Big Ten Coach of the Year says his guy can make the leap to 70 percent completions. Never mind that the all-time record is 73.6 percent, set 10 years ago by Central Florida's Daunte Culpepper.
"It's a high number," Zook said of his outlook. "So where you want him, 66, 67 (percent)? That's not very far. Seventy just sounds better."
"Definitely," he said. "It's all about how you train, how you prepare for the season. If you want it, you go get it."
Williams was at the center of one of the great individual performances of 2007. In that upset of the Buckeyes, he threw for 140 yards (four touchdowns) and rushed for another 70. But it was his sideline pleading with Zook with 6:53 left that won the game. Leading by seven, Zook had sent the punt team out on fourth-and-inches from his own 33.
Williams begged his coach to go for it. Juice picked up the first down, then proceeded to help run out the clock to complete one of the Illini's biggest victories.
|RB||Beanie Wells||Jr.||Ohio State|
|RB||Javon Ringer||Sr.||Michigan State|
|WR||Brian Robiskie||Sr.||Ohio State|
|OL||Alex Boone||Sr.||Ohio State|
|OL||A.Q. Shipley||Sr.||Penn State|
|OL||Steve Rehring||Sr.||Ohio State|
|DL||Maurice Evans||Jr.||Penn State|
|LB||Jim Laurinaitis||Sr.||Ohio State|
|LB||Marcus Freeman||Sr.||Ohio State|
|DB||Malcolm Jenkins||Sr.||Ohio State|
|DB||Anthony Scirrotto||Sr.||Penn State|
|P||Jeremy Boone||Jr.||Penn State|
There's a further maturity to the quarterback's life and his game. There is a young daughter, La-Chez, and girlfriend he lives with in Champaign. In the offseason he worked on timing with his talented receivers to become a better thrower. The impact of the loss of Rashard Mendenhall seems to lessen by the day. Speedster Daniel Dufrene, a former Vanderbilt transfer who averaged 6.3 yards per carry last season, is the favorite to replace the 1,681-yard rusher.
All it means is there is an improved support system for Williams, who can carry the team. The idea, though, is for him to share the ball.
"When everything is clicking ...," Zook said during one of his random-thought rants, "... He's got God-given ability. He understands touch. ..."
Here comes more of that hyperbole, so duck. First it was a comparison to Troy Smith. Now ...
"Chris Leak was kind of bred to be a quarterback, but he went through the same learning curve (as Juice)," Zook said. "His junior year he led the SEC in every offensive category. I'm not saying Juice is going to do that but Juice has made the same kind of improvements."
There they are: Comparisons to a Heisman winner and a national championship quarterback. Maybe Williams can be both.
How's that for hyperbole?
Offensive Player of the Year
Chris Wells, RB, Ohio State: Say goodbye to Beanie after this season. He is NFL-ready now but the rules say he has to stay another year. Big (237 pounds) and fast, Wells cranked out a 1,600-yard season as a sophomore. Considering that Terrelle Pryor needs his touches, that total might go down. But if you're a defense, who do you key on, Pryor or Wells?
Defensive Player of the Year
Jim Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State: He started his career worshipping the Ohio State linebacking greats of the past. Now he is one of them. Many were surprised when Laurinaitis returned for his senior year, but the kid is motivated by nothing more than love for the game. An injury could hurt his pro career but here's the tradeoff: He will never win this much in the NFL.
|2008 Conference Previews|
|Mountain West||Big 12|
Predicted order of finish
1. Ohio State: Use your heads, not your hearts. This might be the best defense in the country. Beanie Wells is the best running back since Maurice Clarett (without the baggage). Terrelle Pryor is a secret weapon. The schedule is manageable and there's no conference championship game to impede a national championship run. Like it or not, that adds up to a third straight BCS title-game berth, this time in the Orange Bowl.
2. Illinois: The ugly stepchild of the Chicago media market has developed into a top 15 program without many folks noticing. Forget the Rose Bowl. That was a Southern California home game. Illinois is still on the upturn. The season could take off quickly with a victory over Missouri in the opener.
3. Wisconsin: Swimming against the tide of the spread option, Bret Bielema has been able to win 21 games in his first two seasons. "The thing I like about being at Wisconsin right now is we're unique," Bielema said. "Five years ago when the spread first started coming into the league, you needed preparation vs. those teams. For us now Wisconsin is unique." Good old-fashioned meat and potatoes football (OK, maybe a little gravy) will put the Badgers in competition for the Rose Bowl. It's all there for them if they beat Ohio State on Oct. 4 in Madison.
4. Michigan State: Give Mark Dantonio time and he is going to win the Big Ten, just not this season. Defenses will clamp down on the talented Javon Ringer with Jehuu Caulcrick gone. That doesn't mean Ringer won't gain 1,000 yards. The offensive line is huge. Defense is a question but could potentially be good. One thing Dantonio will tell you in his heart of hearts: Michigan is going down on Oct. 25.
5. Michigan: Sorry, Blue. Ten-win seasons are a thing of the past until Rich Rodriguez gets his spread up and running. There will be confusion, there will be losses, and there will be grumbling fans by the end of the season. Everything is going to be fine, just not right away. Call it 7-5 or 8-4.
Who will win the Big Ten?
It will be an upset
Total Votes: 40,590
6. Penn State: The Big Ten is down? Not in State College. Penn State has won three consecutive bowl games, including the Orange Bowl over Florida State. You've got to hand it to Joe. After that little downturn a few years back, he spit in the eyes of his critics and reloaded. All that off-the-field stuff will fade away if Paterno can win nine. It would be nice if receiver Derrick Williams finally fulfills his promise. Five career receiving touchdowns? C'mon, D-Will. Linebacker Chris Colasanti gets his chance after the injury to star Sean Lee.
7. Purdue: Joe Tiller's farewell tour should end in a bowl. He goes out with the conference's best quarterback, Curtis Painter, but little else on offense. The strength is on defense, where coordinator Brock Spack has Purdue's best unit since the one that led the Big Ten in D in 2003.
8. Iowa: I never thought I'd see Iowa sink this low under Kirk Ferentz. The off-field stuff is more than a distraction. The biggest blow is the decline in talent. The recruiting just hasn't been good in recent years. Last year's 6-6 record is going to look like a BCS bowl after 2008.
9. Indiana: That was something, wasn't it? In his first season as coach Bill Lynch helped the Hoosiers break a 13-year bowl drought. This season there are eight home games, no Michigan, no Ohio State, a new no-huddle scheme and -- wow! -- momentum. Quarterback Kellen Lewis, back from a suspension, will be the offensive key.
10. Northwestern: Pat Fitzgerald did wonders in two seasons after taking over for Randy Walker. The Wildcats were 6-6 last season and could be knocking on the door of a bowl this season. Quarterback C.J. Bacher could be the Big Ten's most entertaining quarterback this side of Juice Williams. Nomad defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz inherits a respectable defense. Defensive tackle John Gill is an NFL prospect.
11. Minnesota: Coach Tim Brewster will talk your arm off. Witness the great recruiting class following a 1-11 season. However, the honeymoon, as they say, is kaput. The defense was the worst in the country. There better be substantial improvement all around in '08 or Minnesota officials will be checking their account balance to see if they can afford a buyout after the '09 season.