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 CARSON, Calif. (AP) -Vindication? Juice Williams feels some.
He heard and read the calls for a quarterback change, but with No. 13 Illinois preparing for the Rose Bowl, it's safe to say that his job is, well, safe.
He's not the same player he was last season or even early this year. He's not the same man, actually.
``I have a different view on life now,'' he said.
It comes from the perspective of fatherhood, a view he discovered when his daughter LaChez was born in September. She lives near Williams with her mother.
``It's another responsibility,'' he said. ``It changes my perspective of life and the game of football. It makes me appreciate the opportunities that I have and try to make the most of it for my daughter. It's some added motivation.''
With fatherhood came confidence and focus, a sense of direction that also helped him become an all-around threat at quarterback as a sophomore and a leader on a team looking to surprise No. 6 Southern California in the Rose Bowl. Williams' development is a big reason why Illinois is 9-3 after five straight losing seasons.
Wild as a true freshman a year ago, Williams completed 56.9 percent of his passes this season and emerged as one of the Illini's leaders. When he wasn't throwing the ball, he was making big gains on the ground. He ran for 774 yards.
But his speed and arm strength never were concerns. His accuracy and confidence were.
One of the nation's top recruits out of Chicago Vocational, the same school where Illini Hall of Famer Dick Butkus played, Williams chose Illinois over other top programs around the country. That made him a rarity among Chicago prospects and put him directly under the spotlight, since his signing was seen as an indication that coach Ron Zook would be able to attract talented players.
Anointed as a program savior, Williams heard criticism last year when he struggled.
He completed just 39.5 percent of his passes and threw as many interceptions as touchdowns (nine), and the calls for a change continued into this season.
``He took a lot of lumps, but that's all part of the process,'' All-America guard Martin O'Donnell said. ``I can't imagine how good he'll be playing next season and his senior year.''
While Williams absorbed the lumps, Zook and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley kept pushing him to work hard, stay confident and tune out the criticism. They wanted him to stop pressing, stop trying to do too much, and view things from a different perspective.
``Juice had to learn that to play quarterback in the Big Ten conference is a way of life,'' Zook said. ``You have to live it. You have to think it. You have to do the extra work off the field.''
Gradually, Williams began to understand what that meant.
He started spending about 15 extra minutes a day watching video. Then, about 25 to 30, and it kept increasing from there. He dedicated himself, learning how to read defenses and find the open man and the results began to show as this season wore on.
``It's almost like being a doctor,'' he said. ``A doctor is not a doctor from 9 to 5; he's a doctor no matter where he goes. ... It's the same with being a quarterback. It's something that you've got to do 24 hours a day, something that you go to sleep thinking about, something that you think about while you're eating. I know that now.''
Williams threw for seven touchdowns and ran for three in the final three weeks. He passed for more than 200 yards twice in that span - at Minnesota and against Northwestern. And in the game where he didn't, Williams delivered the performance of his life and lifted Illinois to its biggest victory in decades.
He threw for four touchdowns to lead the Illini to a shocking 28-21 victory at No. 1 Ohio State on Nov. 10 and their first win over a top-ranked team since 1956. He also ran for three key first downs, allowing Illinois to keep the ball for the final 8:09.
Williams played so well in that game that linemen were telling him, ``Juice, we really need this. We're looking up to you.''
``I'm willing to take the role of being a leader out there and putting this team on my back,'' Williams said.
He showed it against Ohio State. And now, no one's calling for a change - not with Illinois in its first Rose Bowl since 1984.
``Juice shouldn't be the starter - that really hit me hard,'' he said. ``That's something that I've never experienced throughout my career, being a quarterback ever since fifth grade. That was a comment I never received, and I wanted to change that. I wanted to put people in the mind-set that I can actually come out here and be successful. I can be a great player. It really motivated me to be successful.''
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