From 13 pounds, eight ounces, to 223 pounds, Isiah John Williams has been through many trying experiences in his 21 years.
And from the time he was 18 seconds old, Williams has had the same nickname: Juice.
“I got my nickname because I was a little big when I was born,” Williams said. “My grandmother called me the juicy baby. Juice just stuck with me. She was definitely an influential figure in my life.”
Because of his abnormal birth weight, Williams nearly died of health complications. His near-death experience is just one of the many challenges Williams has had to face.
Consistently, he’s done one thing – fight through the tough times.
Williams was one in a family of seven children growing up on the South Side of Chicago. He lived in a house with both of his brothers and one of his four sisters.
“It was pretty difficult considering the neighborhood,” Williams said at Big Ten Media Day in July. “I grew up around three street gangs, so there was a lot of gang violence. A lot of fights, shootings and killings. I’ve seen a lot of my friends go away.”
Williams estimated that around half of his friends went through unexpected adversity and died or went to jail. He relied on one of his older brothers to help guide him through the tough times.
“He was able to reach back and really tells me the ins and outs, the do’s and don’ts in my neighborhood,” Williams said. “I was one of the few who listened to the role models in their life. Listening to him was great.”
Williams labeled his older brother’s character as influential in forcing him to stay focused on sports, especially football.
In his freshman year at Illinois, Williams completed just 39.5 percent of his passes as the Illini went 2-10. Williams completed fewer than 10 passes in eight of his team’s games that season. Illinois fans questioned whether Williams was the answer at quarterback.
Juice answered critics’ calls.
Last year, Juice completed 57.3 percent of his passes and led Illinois to the Rose Bowl with a 9-3 regular season record.
Now in his junior year, Williams has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes. Most striking is that he has raised his quarterback efficiency rating 23 points.
His fewest completions in a game this season: 13.
“It’s definitely been my challenge to get better as a throwing quarterback,” Williams said. “Every quarterback, whether you’re the best or worst passer in the country, wants to get better in the passing game.”
In three seasons, Williams has gone from being the worst passer statistically in Divison-I college football, No. 110, all the way to No. 23.
The names of players in front of him include McCoy, Bradford, Daniel, Harrell and Tebow.
“He’s grown exponentially,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He’s probably playing the best football of his career right now.”
It’s hard to believe that Williams was once considered a run-first quarterback. In high school, Williams was touted as the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country. During his first two seasons in Champaign, Williams rushed for a combined 1,331 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s followed it up with 577 yards on 141 attempts and five touchdowns this season.
The junior has accounted for 75 percent of the top-ranked offense in the Big Ten. Williams averages a combined 334.6 yards of offense per game out of Illinois’ 447.6 yards per contest.
“He still has that ability to keep plays alive,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s the kind of quarterback that makes you so frustrated as a defensive coach because you could have great coverage and then he makes one, two, three guys miss.”
Juice has been able to do what many mobile quarterbacks struggle to do – gain respect for their ability to pass the ball. Despite the gaudy offensive statistics, the Illini (5-6, 3-4) have struggled this season. Illinois has not won back-to-back games since it beat Eastern Illinois and Louisiana-Lafayette in the second and third weeks of the season.
Still, Williams has drawn praise from the Wildcats.
“He’s incredibly difficult to stop,” senior defensive tackle John Gill said. “Obviously he’s extremely athletic.He’s a good passer. He runs their offense really well. I don’t know if you can totally stop him, you can only hope to contain him.”