CHAMPAIGN — For most of his football-playing life, Isaiah Williams has heard every doubt and criticism about him.
Most, if not all, of the doubts circle around his height. Williams understands 5-foot-10 isn't an ideal height for a quarterback. As a 4-star prospect out of Trinity Catholic High School in St. Louis, almost every college football program in the country was after his services. Not every program, though, wanted him at quarterback.
But Illinois did.
Williams signed with the Illini during the December early signing period and will enter fall training camp in the thick of a quarterback competition. He's not shying away from competing with M.J. Rivers III, Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor for the job. He's spent years proving he can play the position without any issues.
"Being a shorter quarterback, you’ve got to prove yourself all the time," Williams said during a spring football practice at Memorial Stadium, where he was visiting his future team. "I could see where it comes from. You like a girl a certain way, coaches like their players a certain way. Most people like their quarterbacks taller. If I want to be a successful quarterback I have to do everything better than all the quarterbacks."
Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith has been asked time and time again if he would consider moving Williams to a different spot to make sure his playmaking abilities are on the field. Each time, Smith stood by his belief that Williams is a quarterback and will remain at that position for the Illini.
The decision makes enough sense considering Williams threw for 2,470 yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior while rushing for 1,132 yards and 11 touchdowns on the way to a Missouri class 3 state championship, in which he threw for 175 yards and four scores. He's the back-to-back Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year.
“He’s about as electric on the field as probably any guy I’ve seen in high school," Smith said on the early signing day in December. "He’s phenomenal at what he does running and throwing. I’m super excited about him. I’m not concerned at all about his size."
Concerns about quarterbacks' height have been alleviated in recent years with the success of Baker Mayfield, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2017 and was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft out of Oklahoma, and last season's Heisman Trophy winner, Kyler Murray of Oklahoma.
“Their success kind of makes it a little easier," Williams said. "It changed the game of football. If, like, Kyler Murray goes to the NFL and becomes successful, it changes the game."
During his press conference during the early signing period, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith cited Murray as a trendsetter for undersized quarterbacks. While the Illini have prototypes for each position, some players don't fit the mold and still have successful careers.
Williams could be one of those players.
“Size is one of the most overrated things I think there is; strength isn’t," Lovie Smith said. "It’s about what you can do from the chin up, but then the waist down — speed and quickness. They don't give you extra points for being bigger or taller. We want guys who can get it across that goal line as soon as possible and that’s what we’re getting."
On Saturday, on an unofficial visit to a spring practice, Williams said it was good to soak in a practice and the atmosphere around the program. He was embraced by the players and is learning from the coaches.
When he arrives on campus in the summer, he'll be reunited with Cory Patterson, the Illini tight ends coach who was the head coach at Trinity Catholic through Williams' junior season before Patterson left to join the Illinois coaching staff. Like it has for so many Trinity Catholic players who have created a pipeline to the Illini, Patterson's presence mattered. Williams called him a father figure.
"They’ve been a part of the family, been a part of my family and now it’s an opportunity to be a part of this family and grow this family," Patterson said.
Reuniting with Patterson and joining the Illinois family meant turning down offers from the nation's elite programs: Alabama, Aubrun, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and the list goes on.
Being an anchor piece for a program re-vitalization and the opportunity to play quarterback are what drew Williams' attention to Illinois.
“It means a lot," he said of playing quarterback. "They’re giving me my shot and I’m going to make the most out of the opportunity."