Illini don't expect QB change to splinter team
October, 5, 2009
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
After Illinois dropped to 1-3, head coach Ron Zook admitted if the team was going to break apart, this would be the time for the cracks to start showing up.
"There could be some splintering," Zook said after Illinois' 35-17 loss to Penn State. "[The media] is going to try to splinter them. Everybody's going to. Some of them may fall by the wayside. I don't think they will, but they could. This is an ideal time that those kinds of things to happen. It will be a test to the type of people we really are."
That was before he decided to bench senior quarterback Juice Williams in favor of junior Eddie McGee.
Few decisions have the potential to divide a locker room as much as a quarterback change. Loyalties can be split, and it can translate to the field. But Fighting Illini players are confident they'll remain unified behind McGee, a veteran backup who will make his first career start Saturday against Michigan State (Big Ten Network, noon ET).
“Everyone’s behind [McGee]," junior wide receiver Arrelious Benn said. "The main thing is to have Juice behind him, if anything, and I know that Juice is behind him. Juice told me that he and Eddie got together [Sunday] night and talked about things and they’re supporting each other.
"I don't think it’s a divided locker room. I know it's not a divided locker room."
The decision to bench Williams, who has started the last 38 games for Illinois, came a surprise to players even though Williams and the offense have struggled this season.
"I don’t think we felt there was a change needed, but with Eddie in there, we’re going to support him just as much as we do Juice," defensive tackle Josh Brent said. "Whether we understand it or not, we trust coach Zook and the decisions he makes. We’re behind him 100 percent."
Benn "didn't see it coming" but reiterated his support for McGee, a fellow Washington D.C. native. Benn and Williams have a close relationship and even share a national award Web site (7-to-9.com), but Benn and the other wide receivers have worked heavily with McGee, who often takes reps with the first-team offense in practice.
McGee's teammates described him as competitive and able to command respect in the locker room. Benn doesn't anticipate the play-calling to change much with McGee at the helm.
"I'm not upset by it because I know Eddie can get the job done," Benn said. "He’s going to go in and do the things he needs to do. I told Eddie this morning, 'This is a situation you can make the best of.'"