CHAMPAIGN — In seventh grade, Isaiah Williams grabbed the wheel of his JFL team, moved to quarterback and lead the team to the league Super Bowl.
It was fun, and he was electric. He also thought his time as a quarterback would end right there. He wanted to move back to being either a wide receiver or running back — the positions he's played his entire life. But his coach at the time — now-Illinois tight end coach Cory Patterson — urged him to play quarterback as an eighth grade.
Williams obliged, put up big numbers and had more success. He was a receiver in his own mind, but the production was screaming that he was a quarterback.
“It happened again," Williams said. "I wanted to move back to receiver when I got to high school because everybody was telling me, ‘They’re bigger, they’re faster, you’re not going to be able to play quarterback in high school.’"
That narrative of impending failure has followed Williams. Each time he hears it, he finds a way to flip the script and prove naysayers wrong. He starred as a freshman at Trinity Catholic in St. Louis, but never trained to be a quarterback, always figuring the return to receiver would be around the corner.
Then he got an offer to play quarterback in college while he was a sophomore in high school, and that was enough to sell Williams on the position. Now as a true freshman at the University of Illinois, he's in a battle to be the team's starter on Aug. 31 when the season opens at home against Akron.
“It was really other people telling me, ‘You can’t do this,'" Williams said. "That’s the reason it ran me away from it. When I play quarterback, it gives me a different feeling. I love the position. I love learning the position and I love everything about quarterback."
He's not running away from it now. It's his passion, and that passion has led to more than enough hype surrounding his arrival in Champaign-Urbana, especially as a major cog in the pipeline that's been built from his high school up Interstate 55 and into Champaign. Williams was a four-star recruit and was courted by the blue bloods of college football. Not all, though, saw him as a quarterback, and some weren't shy about telling him.
"There were people who told me I would never play quarterback in high school," Williams said. "There were people who told me I would never play a down in college. College coaches told me that."
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Here he is.
Every time Williams found the end zone, juked a defender or laced a pass in high school, the hype grew louder. For the most part, he's been able to ignore it. He hasn't been perfect in each of the four practices that Illinois has had to open fall camp. He knew that was part of the process. It's a different game, a different playbook, a different speed. Perfection wasn't expected this early, and neither was a starting job.
“I don’t want nothing guaranteed," Williams said. "I don’t want nothing given to me. I knew coming in, the one thing I had to focus on was me working hard and learning everything. I know my time is going to come, it’s just God’s plan. Right now I just wanted to come in and learn everything, that’s the biggest thing. It’s not about starting or anything like that, just learning and being the best me."
For Williams, being himself means rising to the occasion, especially early in camp when the team moves from individual drills to the 11-on-11 portion of practices. That's where the real Isaiah Williams is able to blossom. He threads passes, jukes and spins from one side of the backfield to the other.
He's able to show his quickness, which Illinois head coach Lovie Smith points out isn't part of everyone's DNA. There's more to Williams than that, however.
"His reputation is he’s a running quarterback, but it’s the things you don’t know about him: He can pass the football and how bright and smart he is, the football intellect of knowing how to navigate when you’re a hotshot recruit coming in into an upperclassmen room," Smith said. “Every time I talk with Isaiah, it seems like he impresses you some kind of way. It’s going to be fun to watch him grow."
Now here's Williams, wearing his orange and blue No. 1 jersey in Champaign and figuring out how to be a Big Ten quarterback with a lot of eye on him. It's a long way from yearning to line back up at receiver, but there's some beauty in the process. He never had a doubt about joining Illinois. He was ready to commit when he was a freshman and had an unofficial visit and met with Lovie Smith for the first time.
And Illinois has never had a doubt about Williams, the kid who backed into being a quarterback and is figuring out how to adjust to the college level.
“We all know what Isaiah Williams can do," offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "It’s just a matter of him getting comfortable and he’s got time on his side."