Justice Is Served
I say the phrase "three head coaches in eight months" a lot. I'm referring to the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, of course. In July, Tim Beckman is the head coach. In late August, Beckman is fired and Bill Cubit is named interim coach. Then, on Not Ideal Day, Bill Cubit is given a two-year extension. And then, on March 5th, 2016, Bill Cubit is fired and Lovie Smith is hired two days later.
We've discussed what that did to recruiting, and how may players decommitted, and how many players transferred, and all of that. But we probably haven't talked enough about the guys who had to endure the entire ordeal. Guys like Justice Williams.
Let's start just by discussing his Illini journey. From the day he committed to today.
Justice Williams, a linebacker from Frisco, Texas, visited Illinois for the Texas State game in 2014. We were losing that game, at home, to Texas State before a long rain delay reset everything. Illinois, thanks to freshman wideout Mikey Dudek - pulled it out 42-35. A few days later, Justice Williams verballed to Tim Beckman and recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh.
When he arrives on campus in June of 2015, his head coach is embroiled in a scandal. Simon Cvijanovic has gone public with his claim that Tim Beckman push him to play with an injury and an investigation has begun. That summer is a whirlwind and three weeks into his first training camp, Williams' head coach is fired when the preliminary report is released. The offensive coordinator is given the job.
So that fall, Williams has the same position coach (Mike Ward) but an interim head coach (Bill Cubit). He redshirts. After the season, his defensive coordinator is fired by Bill Cubit (Tim Banks), Mike Ward goes out the door with him, so as winter workouts begin he has a new defensive coordinator (Mike Phair) and a new linebacker coach (Tim McGarigle).
A few months later, once the new Athletic Director is hired, that double-interim coach goes out the door and a new head coach comes in: Lovie Smith. Lovie decides to keep McGarigle on his staff but Phair is moved to DL coach while Hardy Nickerson is given the defensive coordinator job. So Justice Williams is in his first spring ball with McGarigle as his position coach and Hardy Nickerson as his defensive coordinator. That fall he plays in all 12 games, mostly on special teams, and starts one game at linebacker.
Over the winter there's another change. Tim McGarigle is gone and Lovie Smith re-shuffles his defensive staff, moving Hardy Nickerson to linebacker coach (in addition to being the defensive coordinator). Justice enters his redshirt sophomore year with his third linebacker coach (and third head coach, and third defensive coordinator). He plays in 11 games, mostly on special teams.
Some time during that season, the coaches approach him about moving to wide receiver. At first it was because they needed additional WR bodies on the scout team, but then it became permanent. He joined Garrick McGee's scout team offense midway through that 2017 season. After that season, you guessed it, McGee is let go.
So now he's in spring ball 2018 and he not only has a new position, he has his second offensive coordinator since the switch. He spends the 2018 season learning how to play receiver for position coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker and offensive coordinator Rod Smith. He starts a game at WR in 2018 but doesn't record any statistics. And WR is where he was this past spring before he made a fall training camp switch to tight end. Meaning that AHS is no longer his position coach - Cory Patterson is his position coach.
Should we tally that up?
- 5 position coaches (Ward, McGarigle, Nickerson, AHS, Patterson)
- 5 coordinators (Banks, Phair, Nickerson, McGee, R. Smith)
- 3 head coaches (Beckman, Cubit, L. Smith)
Which is why his touchdown yesterday nearly made me break the pressbox no-cheering rule. Which is why I only interviewed one player after the game. I'll let you listen to that interview, and then I'll talk about it:
Make sure you click "stop" there because it's probably going to auto-play the next bit of audio in the queue (which I believe is me recording the quietest State Farm Center game in history).
I conducted this interview in the "lower" lobby of the Smith Center, the building you've seen all over the internet the past few weeks. These players have a new $80 million home with every imaginable bell and whistle. They deserve it.
And a guy like Justice Williams especially deserves it. Just think of how dedicated he is to this program. He's already had three position coaches and three coordinators in the fall of his redshirt sophomore year and Coach Nickerson tells him "hey Justice, they need you on the WR scout team for the rest of this season". And then, after a year there, this August, with Luke Ford having to sit after his waiver was denied, he goes to Rod Smith and tells him "coach, I can help at tight end". All these position switches and he volunteers for another one.
Which is why that touchdown was my favorite moment from yesterday. Like Dre Brown's TD in the Minnesota game last year, this touchdown was SO WELL EARNED. He stuck with the program and now, not only is he on the field and contributing (go watch his block on Brandon Peters' rushing touchdown), he gets a TD in the first game of his senior season.
As I've said many times, no senior class in the history of college football deserves a bowl game more than this one. Especially the redshirt seniors. Reggie Corbin, Caleb Reams, Dre Brown, Justice Williams, Trenard Davis, Bobby Walker, and Jamal Milan have seen more upheaval than maybe any group of players in Illini history.
And all of them had had at least one moment before yesterday. Corbin obviously had last season. Reams had that touchdown where he somehow kept his balance by planting his hand. Dre Brown has many moments, the biggest probably being Minnesota last year. Trenard Davis would probably point to his touchdown pass against Penn State last year. I still remember Bobby Walker's catch against Nebraska (that and his blocking skills earned him a 2018 scholarship on Christmas Day, 2017), and Milan has had many moments over the 20 games he has started.
But Justice Williams didn't have a moment yet. And now he does. And I couldn't be happier. You might say that...
(yeah, I'm saying it)
Justice is served.