Closing the Book of Isaiah (Williams)

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By Paul Schmidt

I’m going to attempt to walk that fine line of blasphemy today and tell everyone a little bit about the prophet Isaiah.  Sunday School is now in session.

Isaiah was a prophet from the 8th Century BC, in both Judaism and in Christianity — For the sake of my own sanity, we’re just going to be dealing with the Christian/Catholic side of things today, mainly because I really wouldn’t know enough about Judaism to write anything intelligent.  In Christianity, Isaiah is also considered a saint. One of the more important parts of Isaiah’s message was, when the people of Israel had turned their back on God, “This land will be completely laid waste and plundered.”  Heavy stuff.

The Book of Isaiah is a book of the Bible that was traditionally viewed as being written by Isaiah himself. He is the central character (so to speak) in this book.  Interestingly, there is now a very widely accepted critical hypothesis that claims most, if not all of the Book of Isaiah was actually written by one or more different authors at a much later date. Tradition ascribes it to Isaiah, modern scholars to two or three other authors. Let’s absorb all that for a moment and flash forward 2800 years, to the sleepy little hamlet of Champaign, Illinois, and their quarterback Juice Williams.

Juice’s first name is actually…wait for it…Isaiah.  Spelled the same and everything. No one ever calls him Isaiah, I know, but it’s still his first name.

I think that it’s safe to say, for his pleasant demeanor, friendly personality and all-around approachability, Juice was being considered for sainthood in Champaign.

The football team, the offense in particular, was certainly going to play football with the book according to Juice.  The offense was certainly focus as the team marched out in 2009.  And when the offense came out of the gates struggling this season, the blame (from fans in particular) was laid at young Isaiah’s feet.  Anyone intelligent really zook_thinking1knows that there’s other authors to that offensive playbook– Namely offensive coordinator Mike Schultz and even head coach Ron Zook himself.

The book Juice should be credited with writing, all on his own, was the record book: breaking  total offense records at three stadiums last season; and just last week he became Illinois’ all-time career total offense leader.

At this point, after we have stuck with Juice for as long as we have, we’re looking at a season laid completely to waste. I think I can also safely say that anyone watching last week’s stinkbomb against Penn State could use the word “plundered” in describing the Nittany Lion offensive line versus the Illini defense.

Isaiah or “Juice” certainly could have been considered the prophet, at regarding Big Ten football. He was easily the most experienced and knowledgable quarterback returning to the Big Ten this season, entering his fourth year as a starter.

Except, not so much.

Today, head coach Ron Zook benched Williams for backup Eddie McGee, putting Juice in the odd position of holding many major Illinois records, having 3-plus years of starting experience, yet relegated to the role of clipboard holder.

This is where the similarities between the prophet Isaiah and Isaiah Williams, unfortunately end.  This isn’t about a kid saving a program from the depths and returning them to the promised land any more.  It’s about a coaching staff and, in particular, a head coach frantically trying to turn a season around in an effort to save their jobs.

Mike Schultz almost certainly will be a one-and-done coach.  I cannot envision any scenario where he is allowed to come back and call plays for the offense next season.  Ron Zook, however, is another matter.

Zook, with an amazing amount of talent coming back and a predominance of optimistic feeling surrounding  that the team, signed a one-year extension to his contract, keeping him contractually obligated to the Illini until 2014 (to the tune of $1.5 million per season). This off-season it looked like Juice and Zook would either ride the tide of victory or sink together.  They would be inextricably linked, especially since Juice was Zook’s first recruit.

ill-osuNow, it appears Zook is not only willing to chuck the under-performing QB under the bus for all of his team’s problems, and use it as a last ditch effort to save his job. Hopefully, it will have the opposite effect. By benching Juice, Zook is essentially admitting that he was either unable to coach Juice (a blue chip recruit out of high school) into the star he should have been, or that their talent evaluation of him was initially wrong.

It doesn’t really matter which part of that statement is correct. If either one is, it doesn’t bode well for the Eddie McGee era — especially given that McGee is so similar to Juice to begin with.

One thing can be said for certain — This effectively signals the end of the 2009 football season for the Illini, and that the rebuilding for next year has begun. But never forget that 90 percent of college football is recruiting. If you were a high-profile recruit, would you come to Champaign to play for a coach that historically hasn’t gotten the most out of his team’s talent? Or maximized the talents each player possesses?

There’s been no comment from Juice, as of yet. There really isn’t much he can say, because he would tell you that he hasn’t been playing well.

Still, you can’t help but feel this was supposed to end differently.  Anyone who saw Juice diving over center on fourth down one dreary Columbus night in November 2007, gaining that first down after convincing his coach to believe in him, to go for it with him…you can’t help but feel a little misled.  A little betrayed.

And more than anything?  Just really, really disappointed.

The Illini may be Alright this Year

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By Paul M. Banks

This past weekend, the University of Illinois Fighting Illini got some measure of redemption from their week one DISASTER in St. Louis. The Illini responded from their 37-9 thrashing at the hands of Missouri to rout FCS opponent Illinois St. 45-17 in Champaign. Granted it was against a lower tier team predicted to finish near the bottom of their vastly inferior conference, but the Illini did without the services of arguably their three if not best, most important, players: QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, and LB Martez Wilson. Williams, a Chicago native who’s been tutored by another Chicago product and star quarterback, Donovan McNabb contributed just one series before getting hurt. His injury is not supposed to be extremely serious and his return is key, for the Illini to have a legitimate leader.

Williams spoke about what he learned from working with McNabb. “Keep your head…a majority of quarterbacks know that when things start going on around them, people start talking, things start to tank. It’s just the quarterback mentality to let everything go and just stay focused and go from there, once you start paying attention to everything negative going on around you, you kind of lose sight of what you’re trying to do, so I just block everything out and just go,” Williams stated.

His top-flight receiver in a highly heralded corps is Arrelious “Rejus” Benn, a projected top ten pick in the NFL Draft. But his stock is falling because Rejus has been a total non-factor so far. The Illini receivers have been extremely hyped, and if Benn isn’t 100% healthy then other players like Jeff Cumberland, Jarred Fayson, and Tight End Michael Hoohoomanawananuii (have fun with trying to pronounce that) will need to step up big time. illinois

Illini Head Coach Ron Zook also needs to realize who his starting tailback is. It should be Daniel Dufrene, with Jason Ford as a capable back-up, not the other way around. They’ve battled some injuries as well this young season, so they fit right in with the rest of the team.

On the other side of the ball, it comes down to another well-recruited Chicago product, Martez Wilson, who moves over to Middle Linebacker, and needs to be the “quarterback” of the defense.

“The last two, actually the last three years, our Mike linebacker has led the Big Ten in tackles,” Zook said. “I don’t want to put the pressure on him that he’s not doing a good job if he doesn’t lead the Big Ten in tackles, but he’s a guy that a lot of things revolve around him, with our calls and so forth, and it’s going to be important that he has the kind of year that we think he can.” Wilson was also hurt and missed the last game. But Illinois won in impressive fashion, despite all the key missing pieces, which is a good sign. It’s also a good thing they have this week off- to get ready and healthy for mighty Ohio St. on September 26th.

Orange Juice (Williams) and Champaign

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The Juice Williams Interview/Profile Part 1

By Paul M. Banks

On May 10, 2005, Urban dictionary made “juice” the Urban Word of the Day and defined it as such “Respect and credibility on the street. A.K.A. Sauce “I can’t be seen with them – they don’t have juice.”

Sounds like another word for power, connections, a big time reputation- something a star quarterback at a large, Big Ten University would have. But University of Illinois quarterback Isaiah John “the kids call him Juice” Williams didn’t get his name on the southside of Chicago’s mean streets, or because he has juice from his teammates. (and to play the most high profile position in all of sports, having juice is a must) Williams was dubbed “Juice” by his grandmother because of his large size as a child. “I was kind of big … you know, big and juicy, I guess.” Williams nearly died at birth due to his large size of 13 pounds and 8 ounces. Today, he’s large within the Illinois and college football record book.

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He enters his senior season with 6,405 career passing yards, fifth on the Illinois all-time list. He ranks 14th on the Illinois all-time rushing list and is the first non-running back in Illini history to top the 2,000 yard career rushing mark. Juice is third on the Illinois career total offense list with 8,455 yards.

His 475 pass completions and 909 pass attempts both rank fifth on the all-time list, he’s also thrown 44 career touchdown passes, third in school history. Oh, and as you might have heard 1000 times before, he attended the same school as former Illinois and Chicago Bears legend Dick Butkus. At Chicago Vocational High, Juice was an honor student.

Former Illini QB Kurt Kittner holds a lot of the records that Juice is poised to break, and as the team’s current radio color analyst, he remains close to the program. “We’ve had a few conversations. Kurt is a great guy, he’s not too worried about me breaking the records, if I’m able to, he’s fine with it. A compliment to the type of mentor he’s been to me, he loves Illini football,” Juice said about his interactions with Kittner.

In the bigger picture, Juice realizes that these records are just numbers. Instead he wants his legacy to be something else.kurtkittner

“I want people to say that Juice was one of the best guys to ever come through here, as far as leadership, being the captain, being the playmaker, being the role model, and being a great human being, not only just around campus but around the community…helping out youngsters, being a positive influence in other people’s lives…on the field, hopefully I can say that I will be the all-time leader in passing, passing yards, rushing yards by a QB, those things would be huge.  In order to get to that point, you have to do things as a team…fulfill team goals and the individual goals will come after that.”

Williams knows that the most important thing for him to do as a quarterback is be the “field general,” to be almost James Bondlike- staying calm and composed when dire situations arise. “Keep your head…a majority of quarterbacks know that when things start going on around them, people start talking, things start to tank. It’s just the quarterback mentality to let everything go and just stay focused and go from there, once you start paying attention to everything negative going on around you, you kind of lose sight of what you’re trying to do, so I just block everything out and just go,” Williams stated.

Of course, Williams has not had this healthy attitude during his entire Illini career. At Big Ten Media Day I asked him if he ever had read some criticism of himself online and gotten offended, thinking “hey, now that’s just not true.”

“I used to do it all the time my freshman year and part of my sophomore year, but you got to get over it, if you look at it too much, you read the blogs, the newspapers, all the negative criticism it takes a toll on you…even outside of football when you’re walking around, I’ve kind of let it go and learned from it,” Juice responded.

The flow of negative press is even more constant in today’s world of Web 2.0 and social media. Juice discussed not being online with Facebook, Twitter etc. too much. “You have to in order to be happy with your life, you got to get away from that,” Isaiah John Williams said.juice2willimas

Last year, the team slipped back a big step, going from a 9-4 BCS season to a lackluster 5-7, could the added media attention and pressure have had something to do with it? Perhaps the bright lights and constant TV cameras of the Big Ten Network’s Illinois Football: the Journey have had something to do with it? “I don’t think it hurt us at all. I think that it gave us an opportunity to showcase what goes on behind the scenes within our team.  It gave guys an opportunity to go out there and represent this University well. I think it was very beneficial to the program. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get the job done on Saturdays, but I don’t think having the cameras around had anything to do with it. I keep all the copies…of course the season didn’t go the way we wanted to, but you’ve gotta have all the videos for when you get older so you can show your kids, and your grandkids and your friends.  Especially with my daughter cause I can say, ‘Hey, you were on TV too.’ You have to have that stuff around,” Juice answered.

That was 2008. In 2009 Juice will get his final opportunities at collegiate glory. “We have to do our job. You have to count on the next man to do their job, and the next guy and the next guy, and you have to do yours, and all the parts to the machine really have to come together and operate. Once you do that you know, that’s when things start happening. You start getting the rushing yards, you start getting the passing yards, but most importantly, you get the W’s.”

Despite their awful record last season, Illinois was not a bad team. Almost all their losses were by narrow margins and came at the hands of teams that eventually played in the postseason. “Anybody who plays this sport is going to lose by just one or two points a few times and you can get very upset at that. But you have to just keep your cool and learn from it,” Williams said.

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Tune in tomorrow, where I’ll post part two of this exclusive. It will feature Juice thoughts on working out with Philadelphia Eagles QB and Chicago native Donovan McNabb, his thoughts about going on to the next level, and much more.

Big Ten QB Power Rankings

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By Paul M. Banks

The Big Ten has a historical reputation for being a “black and blue” type conference like the old NFC Central in the NFL. Woody Hayes and his “3 yards and a cloud of dust” comes to mind. But today, it’s all about the spread-option, and having a quarterback who can run the ball almost as well, or better than he can throw it. The Big Ten’s best are the guys who can beat with you with their legs in addition to beating you with their arm.

1. Ohio State- Terrelle Pryor.
He’s the Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, and will only get better. The only question remaining is, why wasn’t he one of the three players selected by THEEEEEE Ohio State University to attend Media Day in Chicago? Instead OSU brought one mediocre player, one guy that might not start, and another who’s scout team level in talent.

2. Illinois- Juice Williams and Penn State- Darryl Clark
It really is a toss-up between these two mobile QBs. Both have led their team to the Rose Bowl, both got smoked in that Rose Bowl, and both have developed towards the back-end of their collegiate career. Juice is a better runner and will put up bigger numbers this fall, but Clark is a better decision maker and commits less mistakes.

4. Minnesota- Adam Weber
Like the first three, he’s mobile and he’s got a gun. But does WR supreme Eric Decker make him look better than he really is? Guess we will find out next year when Decks is gone.

5. Northwestern Mike Kafkajuice-williams-arrelious-benn-440
He’s known as “the guy who broke that QB rushing record” to most, as he really hasn’t done much else outside of… the record shattering 217 yards he scrambled for in a season-defining win at Minnesota last fall. But he has potential, and now with C.J. Bacher’s departure, he has a chance to be the man and carry this team.

6. Iowa- Ricky Stanzi
Has high potential to rise above this spot; playing with the luxury of his stellar defense and the great blocking in front of him will help him get there.

7. Michigan State- Kirk Cousins/Keith Nichol
Cousins looked ok when he got some playing time in the Citrus Bowl last year (if the credit card company that bought the rights to that game wants publicity, they can give me a cut, until then it’s the Citrus Bowl to me!). Nichol is yet another qb transfer who bails on his program when he finds himself lower on the depth chart. But when you realize that he had to contend with Sam Bradford at Oklahoma, can you blame him? They’ll name their starter in a couple days.

8. Indiana- Ben Chappell
He’s got a good arm, but he’s no Antwaan Randle El. He’s not even in the same class as Kellen Lewis.

9. Purdue- Joey Elliot
He’s the like the Chester Frazier of Big Ten football- already focused on coaching once his college career ends. Last year, the Joe Tiller era ended. This year ends the era of Purdue QBs putting up good passing numbers and having draft potential.

10. Michigan ???
Familiar with the term “hot mess”? I don’t really know where to begin, expect by asking them to start over with whoever is the highest rated youngster at the position in their program.

11. Wisconsin ???
The Badgers deserve this spot simply because of what happened today with Bret Bielema’s “depth chart” release, an extreme let-down that said nothing. Junior Scott Tolzien and redshirt freshman Curt Phillips were listed as co-starters ahead of senior Dustin Sherer, who started the final seven games in 2008. They won’t bother telling us who’s winning the position battle. But we can figure out that Sherer is JUST AWFUL.

Illini WRs Secret Weapon Michael Hoohoomanwanuii

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The University of Illinois Wide Receiving Corps will be among the best in College Football this year. In this four part series, Paul M. Banks interviews and profiles each of the top four Illini pass catching threats.

Part 3: Michael Hoohoomanwanuii

Part 4: Arrelious “Rejus” Benn

Michael Hoomanawanui, Illinois

Height: 6-5. Weight: 274.

Projected 40 Time: 4.73.

Projected Round (2010): 6-7.

Info courtesy of Walter Fooball.com

Tight End Michael Hoomanawanui (Yes, I actually know how to pronounce his name, it’s “ho-ho-mah-now-uh-new-e) or “Ho-Ho” as most people around the Illinois program call him, makes everyday Christmas Day for Illini QBs with his pass catching and route running abilities.

“I’ve really been working on becoming a complete tight end with blocking and receiving. Last year I put it all together and people got to see that, so hopefully I can just build on that and do whatever I can to help the team win,” Ho-Ho said during my exclusive conversation with him Illini Media Day. Last week Michael was named to the Mackey Award Watch List, an honor to be bestowed upon the nation’s top Tight End. He also spoke about the tremendous talent Illinois has at the wide receiver position, possibly the nation’s best.

“In the summer, we had some pretty tough workouts, we pulled together and pulled the team along, coach has just let us let it be our team with all the experience we have…I personally think they’re one of the best in the country, but right now all it is, is potential and Coach has been talking about how we got to turn potential into performance, they’ve been doing great in camp so far, so we’ll see how it translates into performance,” Ho-ho said. If he does go to the next level, who exactly might be his role model? La Lafayette Illinois Football

“Tony Gonzalez, Gates, Olsen, there’s a lot of great guys out there, so I try to take something from each of their games and I’ll be alright,”


Illinois Wide Receivers- Jeff Cumberland

The University of Illinois Wide Receiving Corps will be among the best in College Football this year. In this four part series, Paul M. Banks interviews and profiles each of the top four Illini pass catching threats.

In Jeff Cumberland, the Illini passing game has a big, make that a very big target. “Because of my size, a lot of people other than my teammates don’t know how strong or fast I actually am. But in addition to being physically big, I’m smart I watch film, I know the game, I know the coverages,” Cumberland told me at Illini Media Day.

“You wouldn’t think someone who’s 240, 250 plus could run as fast as me so teams that don’t know when they see me on film and think I’m not that fast, but I’m getting my separation. They might think ‘he can’t run by you, may be he’ll run inside,” the 6’5” senior with approximate 4.6 speed replied when I asked him about his size possibly making him deceptively fast.

During our exclusive conversation I also asked him what larger receivers in the NFL he models his game on. “I would say Brandon Marshall, he’s big strong, has agility, I really look up to him, Andre Johnson too.” cumberland2

Cumberland came into the University of Illinois as a very highly tight end. The recruiting services loved him as he was named PrepStar All-American, the nation’s No. 66 overall recruit by ESPN.com, and a four-star by Rivals.com and Scout.com. He was slow to develop as a tight end his freshman and sophomore years, but when he was moved to receiver in middle of 2007, his career began to blossom as he was extremely productive during the last four games or so.

Cumberland talked about the transition. “There was also a mismatch. When I was at tight end, there were a lot of linebackers covering me, who I can run right past them. I feel the same way playing receiver outside, I’m just as fast as DBs if not faster, and physical.” Last year he was fairly productive, but 2009 looks to be a breakout year for him. Provided there are enough balls to go around in the Illini’s extremely talented receiving corps.

“Something that we all are trying to do is use the chances we get as much as we can. We each have to take as much advantage of the playing time we get because there’s a lot of guys who can step up and perform if you aren’t,” Cumberland stated. Of course, all this depth could be a blessing or a curse- and it depends on how the coaching staff and Illini quarterback Juice Williams manage the situation. Cumberland spoke about the positive potential:

“Rather than one person to get 70 balls and the next person to get 30 balls, you spread the balls out, when you got so many weapons…there’s going to be less double teams and triple teams when they have to worry about everybody that’s out on the field; instead of just one person.”

University of Illinois Fighting Illini Season Football Preview, Part 1

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By Paul Schmidt

The 2009 University of Illinois Fighting Illini football team is likely to be something of an enigma.  It seems that any time expectations are heaped upon the school, they never live up to those expectations, and when they have no one thinking highly of them they tend to over-perform everyone’s opinions.

Does that mean that this year’s team will fail, again, to make a bowl game as many experts are projecting the Illini to a middle of the pack finish in the Big Ten?

Hopefully, this preview can answer some of those burning questions. First we’ll go over why Illini fans should be optimistic, the offense, and then tomorrow preview why they should be nervous (the defense).

OFFENSE


There will be one thing that will never be said about the 2009 incarnation of the Fighting Illini — they couldn’t score.  This team will boast one of the nation’s highest scoring offenses and will be one of the most
juiceentertaining teams to watch in the country every Saturday.

Things will begin and end with Isiah “Juice” Williams. One of two Illini dark-horse Heisman candidates, Williams has to have a great season for the Illini to go far. The question on the minds of many Illini fans is whether or not we’ll see the Juice of his sophomore season (that guided the Illini to the Rose Bowl) or whether it’ll be the inconsistent Juice of 2008.

For his part, Williams is focused on the company line for the upcoming campaign.

“We all have to do our job, gotta count on the next man to do their job, and you gotta have all the parts of the machine really come together and operate,” Williams said. “Once you do that, that’s when you get the passing yards, and the rushing yards, and the W’s most importantly.”

Consistency is obviously a big key for Williams and one of the things he needed to work on as a QB was his touch — as in acquiring one.

“My problem was my first two years I really didn’t know a lot of stuff that was going on, so I did what I did best — throw it as hard as I can,” Williams said. “Obviously, that really hurt pass percentages, and hurt a few receivers’ hands. Once I got into the offense and started to understand the position and the concepts that we were trying to run through each play, I was able to go out there and really throw it.”

Williams’ ability to ‘really throw it’ will be made all the easier with an incredible group of wide receivers that may be the nation’s best.  Not among the nations’ best — they very well could be the most talented group of wide receivers lining up in college football.

Arrelious “Rejus” Benn headlines the talented group as the Illini’s other darkhorse Heisman hopeful, but the talent hardly stops there.  Florida transfer Jarrod Fayson looks to step in and contribute immediately, and offensive coordinator Mike Schultz likes what he sees of the young man. benn

“Jarrod is really a big strong kid,” Schultz said. “He’s a great route runner and has great hands. He’s not a guy that will beat defensive backs deep, but he can definitely get by them and stop and come back.”

Benn and Fayson will be joined by A.J. Jenkins, Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt, Cordale Scott and Fred Sykes, along with much-heralded newcomer Terry Hawthorne.

The biggest challenge is going to be on Schultz this season as he is tasked with getting everyone enough catches to keep the entire receiving corps happy.

“I got a way to keep everyone happy, but I’m not telling anybody,” Schultz said with a laugh. “Right now we have everyone learning a couple positions, both at wide and split ends.”

With all of the concentration on the pitch-and-catch combinations, this is a team that in 2007 led the Big Ten in rushing and had one of the most prolific rushing attacks in the nation.  Now, Rashard Mendenhall was a big part of that, and he has been in the NFL for a year already, but there still is a lot of talent in the backfield.

Setting aside the obvious speed threat of Williams running when he can’t find someone open to pass to, the Illini will feature three talented players in the backfield.

Daniel Dufrene, Jason Ford, and Mikel LeShoure will all split time at running back, as Illinois head coach Ron Zook has repeatedly said that he not only doesn’t think that a team has to have a featured back, but that he feels all three will be able to contribute given the situation.

Dufrene, however, may emerge as the most important runner for the Illini as last season he led the Illini in yards-per-carry, despite having a season marred by personal troubles and some injuries.