CHAMPAIGN — Last season, Justice Williams used to joke about what he could do as a receiver with former quarterback Jeff George Jr.
“Man dude, if they give me a shot at receiver, it’s going down," Williams, then a linebacker, told George.
Then late last season when the scout team needed help, the University of Illinois football coaching staff asked Williams if he wanted to sub in as a scout team receiver.
The alternative, with the team not needed his then-SAM linebacker position on the field, was waiting on a cold sideline. Williams obliged to fill in.
It's a position Williams hasn't played since his senior year at Wakeland High School in Frisco, Texas in 2014.
Now, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior lines up full time at receiver after making the switch in the spring. He's rising to the occasion, leaping to call balls in training camp.
Williams came to Illinois as the a three-star linebacker and as the No. 10 linebacker in Texas and No. 67 in the nation, according to Scout.
As a redshirt freshman in 2016, Williams played in all 12 games with one start at linebacker. He played primarily on special teams last season in 11 games, with nine tackles and one pass breakup.
But there's something about offense.
“Getting recruited as a linebacker and coming here as a linebacker was cool, but I always kind of missed offense," Williams said. "It feels nice to be back."
The first day of scout team receiver posed its share of challenges last year. Williams caught a drag route and fumbled the ball. The following day, he started making catches. That's when he thinks the prospect of switching positions became a reality.
Since Williams made the switch, receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker has seen Williams blossom at the position.
“I think he’s made the most bounds since the spring until now out of all the receivers," Hayes-Stoker said.
Last year, Williams considered himself a "bulky 220 pounds," but he's dropped somewhere between five and eight pounds at his new spot in offensive coordinator Rod Smith's new up-tempo offense.
"He’s getting better," Smith said. "He was always a little raw just because he hasn’t played in a while. He’s got really good ball skills, and that’s what helps him. If he can catch the ball as a receiver, that’s part of it, right? Happy he can keep coming like he is. He’s going to keep getting better, I think."
Williams has had a few months to get re-acclimated with a position that led him to be a two-time all-district selection in Texas during his high school career.
“It feels really good," Williams said. "We had the spring to really get my feet wet so that was a big help. Then the summer with all the guys was also another great help, and just being around it now and getting back in the swing of things."
On at least two occasions through the first two days of training camp, Williams has skied to pluck a ball out of the air, over the top of his defender.
His route to receiver wasn't a commonality for all collegiate receivers, but he's making the most of it.
“He’s big, he can jump and high point the ball," Hayes-Stoker said. "He’s smart, he’s competitive and he’s one of those guys who wants to find a way to win. He’s not your prototypical college receiver, if you think about his size and moving from linebacker."
Receivers Ricky Smalling, who compiled 31 receptions for 501 yards and a pair of scores last year, and Mike Dudek, who is healthy for the Illini, figure to be stalwarts of the receiver position.
But the Illini will need depth, and Hayes-Stoker sees Williams as someone who can fill that role.
“I see Justice and Sam Mays being guys who compete for those outside spots and I think both of them will play and be able to make some plays for us," Hayes-Stoker said. "I’d like all the guys to be able to make some catches and feel like they’re part of the team and be part of the movement."
Williams doesn't care where he lines up for the Illini. He's settling back into his position and building a chemistry with the quarterbacks.
"I’m just doing whatever I can to help out and play, whether that’s playing the slot, the outside, if they need me to go play quarterback, whatever it is I’ll go out and play," Williams said.