CHICAGO - When Illinois quarterback Juice Williams is feeling a little down, he can lean on an old friend who will understand. This old friend went to high school near Williams' Chicago Vocational. He, too, was a quarterback for a Division I school in a major conference. Perhaps you've heard of him . . . Donovan McNabb.
"He's a big brother/uncle, a mentor," Williams said. "He's a guy I've known for many years. He's very similar to how I play football and how I am off the field: very cheerful, very humble and wants to win. He's a dynamic player and a guy I look up to."
Williams and the Illini are coming off a disappointing 5-7 season in which they failed to qualify for the postseason a year after representing the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl. The expectations for 2008 were never met and Williams thinks he knows why.
"I definitely put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself," he said. "Now that I look back on it, I shouldn't have even thought about it. I should have just had fun with the game and cherished it."
If there is a sleeper in the Big Ten this year, Illinois could be it. In fact, it won't take long to figure out. A trip to Ohio State on Sept. 26 starts a run against the conference's top three teams. Penn State visits Memorial Stadium the following week and Michigan State comes in the week after that.
"I love our schedule," said wide receiver Arrelious Benn. "I think it sets up that we can show people what kind of team we can be."
A lot of that showcasing will depend on finding consistency from a running back and on Williams cutting down his interceptions.
Williams was a sophomore in high school when he became friendly with Donovan McNabb's father, Sam. He said the elder McNabb was a neighborhood mentor and helped Williams during some teenage growing pains.
"It just happened that his son was Donovan McNabb," Williams said. "Me and Mr. McNabb talk about life in general; how to overcome obstacles. After a while, when I started to take football seriously, that's when he introduced me to his son."
Williams is a Chicago kid through and through. There's talk that Illinois and Northwestern might play at Wrigley Field as early as 2010, which he'd miss out on. He did make a Wrigley appearance when he threw out the first pitch before Monday night's Cubs game. And he will see McNabb play in person for the first time when the Eagles visit the Bears on Nov. 22.
Williams is fifth in Illini history in passing yards with 6,405 and has a legitimate shot to break Jack Trudeau's record of 8,725. His 44 touchdowns have been tempered by 37 interceptions. With Benn and Florida transfer Jarred Fayson to throw to, Illinois should be a handful on offense. The question is whether it can regain the magic from 2007 or stumble like it did last year when Illinois lost at Western Michigan.
A large part of that answer lies with Williams, particularly above his shoulders.
"Me putting all that pressure on myself really hindered my game-playing because I was so focused on not making a mistake," he said. "If I knew what I know now, I would be cool and relaxed and gone out and had fun."
"Right now, I'm going to focus on football," he said. "I'm excited for the fall and I see my future in football. I love baseball, it's been a lifetime sport for me. It's a great backup plan if football doesn't work out."
Decker, a centerfielder, hit .319 in 56 games for the Gophers last season. The Twins picked him in the 27th round, which kind of indicates he's making the right choice by sticking with football. His 177 career catches are two behind the school record set by Ron Johnson (1998-2001). Decker currently projects to being a third-round pick in next year's NFL draft.
That stock could rise with the arrival of offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch from the Denver Broncos and wide-receivers coach Richard Hightower from the Houston Texans.
"They know what it takes for players to make it to the NFL," Decker said. "They're able to share that information and coach you up because they've been to the highest level."
Call of the week
"I got a voicemail and called it right back and said, 'Whoa. Wait a minute. Are you sure about this?' I was pretty surprised," he said, laughing. "But it is preseason and we still have to get ready for the season."
Michigan State junior linebacker Greg Jones found out he was the Big Ten preseason defensive player of the year from a message by someone in the Spartans' sports information department.
Minnesota senior wide receiver Eric Decker has twice been tempted by major league baseball. But coming off a school-record 84-catch season and the addition of two offensive assistants from the NFL have convinced him to put down his glove for the time being.