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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
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|Juice Williams is prepared for the added leadership role he must assume this season.|
Shared misfortune brought Illinois teammates and roommates Juice Williams and Chris James together on the Edward Jones Dome sideline Sept. 1. Their conversation wasn't pleasant, but memorable.
James, a potential starter at wide receiver, already knew he wouldn't be playing that day against Missouri after tearing his ACL in training camp. Williams started the game at quarterback, determined to muzzle his doubters after an erratic freshman season, but left in the second quarter after taking a blow to the head from Missouri's Hardy Ricks on a 4-yard run.
Together, they watched as backup quarterback Eddie McGee rallied Illinois to within six points before throwing an interception at the goal line in the final minute.
"He talked to me about not finishing the game," James said of Williams. "He was real sad and upset."
"He took that loss to heart," added Illini linebacker Brit Miller.
Fast-forward to Monday as Williams and James sat in the film room at Memorial Stadium studying Missouri. This time they spoke with a tone of optimism, sensing the opportunity that soon awaited them.
It arrives Saturday as Illinois heads back to St. Louis to face Missouri (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The game has added meaning for Williams, who matches up against Heisman Trophy candidate Chase Daniel.
"Even without the injury, it would still be special," Williams said. "The first game of the season, you prepared all offseason to get better as a player, as a leader, as a role model of this team. You're just so thrilled to go out there and show the world what you can do."
A greater burden will be placed on Williams this fall after Illinois lost running back Rashard Mendenhall, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley wants to pass more to exploit a deeper-than-expected receiving corps and a junior quarterback no longer prone to poor decisions and an unsightly completion percentage.
Williams likely will look to air it out immediately against a Missouri defense that ranked 96th nationally against the pass last season (256.9 ypg).
"I'm pretty sure he can't wait to show the world what he can do as far as the passing," star wide receiver Rejus Benn said. "He's labeled as an option quarterback, a runner, but he's a passer and he's going to show that."
Williams spent a week this summer working with Eagles quarterback and fellow Chicagoan Donovan McNabb, who encouraged him to rely on more than just his arm strength to lead the offense. After completing just 39.5 percent of his passes as a freshman and struggling early last season, Williams began to get comfortable and played his best down the stretch, most notably in an upset of then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus.
He completed 6 of 9 passes against Missouri and added 11 rushing yards before the injury, which occurred when he started to slide on a scramble.
"I kind of learned my lesson," Williams said. "After that game, the coaches have pretty much been on me to run physical. As the season went on, I started running harder, breaking a bunch of tackles here and there, so it really paid off."
Illini coach Ron Zook doesn't expect Williams to think about the injury Saturday, which speaks to the quarterback's growing maturity.
"He has improved in every area, whether it be the way he talks with the media, the way he practices, all the things," Zook said. "Now it's going to be important that he goes out there and shows what we all think is going to happen, that he is a much-improved player."
Williams should get help from his receivers. In addition to Benn, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, the Illini will start James and junior Chris Duvalt, who had a very strong preseason. Not having the 6-foot-5 Jeff Cumberland (foot) will hurt, but freshmen Fred Sykes, A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott all are expected to contribute.
"I can't even imagine the feeling I'll have running onto the field knowing that I'm going to be able to play this year," said James, who started the final four games in 2006. "It's exciting knowing you can get out there and know where you are from the start, going against a top team like Missouri."
Despite the Ohio State win and a run to the Rose Bowl, Illinois enters this fall needing to shed the one-year-wonder tag. What better way to start than against a team that many around the country would have rather seen in a BCS bowl than the Illini.
"Being able to go out there and win a game against a top-notch program would mean a lot for this program," Williams said. "It would hopefully make other guys start to believe in the Illini program, that the Illini guys are back and last year was not a fluke."