Ashante Williams was the starting SAM linebacker for Illinois throughout the spring. Coaches said he was doing some things better than the graduated Nate Bussey, who was drafted by the NFL.
Then shortly before the start of fall camp, Williams was arrested for a DUI, and his world collapsed around him. He was suspended from the team as he worked his way through the legal system. Worse yet, his absence forced starting senior safety Trulon Henry to learn a new position at the last minute. One mistake had a deleterious effect on Williams and his team.
"Personally it's tough," Williams admits. "First off, you feel disappointed because you let down the team, your family, the fans. Then you've got to go through the situation legally. You've got to hang in there, keep your head up and don't get down on yourself. Everybody goes through bad situations. You learn from them and move on."
Williams loves football and his Illini teammates, and he missed it.
"Just being away from the team. Missing the camaraderie, not being around the football field. That was the hardest part I'd say."
Harsh life lessons help one learn the value of all things and how to prioritize what is really important.
"It was a growing-up experience. Knowing me being a part of this team and doing the right thing is more important than me just being selfish. I'm trying to do things that don't jeopardize my status on the team. Just knowing that I'm a big part of this community and people look up to me, it was a learning experience. It will never happen again."
Williams was ecstatic when reinstated after the start of the season. He has played primarily on special teams since the fourth game, but it has been a constant battle to regain the trust of Illini coaches.
"Very much so. I'm still earning their trust back at this very moment. I take it day by day. I wake up every day praying to do the right things. Put your pant legs on one foot at a time, make sure I walk straight and stay out of trouble.
"The team can't afford for me to get in any trouble. The same for my family, fans, everybody. The team needs me, I need the team, so I can't be selfish. I thank the coaches every day for letting me back on the team because more than anything, I need the team."
He found ways of helping his teammates even when he wasn't playing.
"It's very frustrating, knowing I could be out there helping. Spiritually, you have to be uplifting on the sidelines and give your team your energy so they can feed off of you. If I could be helpful on a play, I was vocal telling people what to do and where to be. I was contributing to the team, and that helped me a lot."
He also helped Henry learn the position Williams knew backward and forward.
"I helped Trulon a tremendous amount. During the games, I would tell him what he's supposed to be doing when he asked a question. He could come watch film with me. It's a team sport, you have to be a team player.
"Him being a senior, he had earned his spot. It was my turn to help him and be sure that we knew everything and were fundamentally sound as a team so we can win."
Williams didn't get needed reps in Camp Rantoul, but he stayed in good shape and prepared as best he could on his own.
"I had my playbook all camp. I was doing individual workouts and running at Urbana High School, flipping tires, doing position work. I was studying my film work. So I was going to school and being a normal student while being ready if and when I could get back on the team.
"Before I got in trouble, I played on all the special teams and was starting, so it's nothing new to me. It's go out there and be fundamentally sound with my assignments and do what I'm supposed to do."
He deeply regrets the accidental shooting that damaged Henry's finger and forced him out of the action. But he feels he is ready to step up and make a contribution.
"Basically I've been preparing every week to potentially step up and play on the field. This week is nothing different, it's just an unfortunate accident we lost a teammate. I've got to step up and be a part of this team and help us get the 'W.'
Senior cornerback Tavon Wilson has played extensively with Williams previously and feels he's ready.
"Before Ashante got into stuff before the beginning of the year, he was starting and playing well. We're very confident in what Ashante brings to our football team, and he's confident in himself. If you believe in yourself, everything else will fall into place. He's gonna give great effort and do the best he can, do his job to help his team. That's all we can ask of him.
"He can come up and play run, he runs well and can cover. We've just got to get him to play the way he's capable of playing. He's a great player, and we believe in him. We've just got to make sure he believes in himself. I'm sure he does."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning is more cautious in his assessment.
"I guess we're gonna find out on Saturday. I think he is (ready); I think he's getting better every week. I guess the true test will come on Saturday.
"We're hoping with this week of practice, Ashante can get greased up from the form he had in the spring. He's been practicing for a number of weeks now. The terminology isn't gonna be that foreign for him.
"I'm sure he'll be nervous on Saturday, and rightfully so. If he's half as nervous as us coaches get every week, then he'll have a good pit in his stomach. There's times for guys to grow up and become men, and it's time to step up and play."
From all indications, Williams has done a lot of growing up off the field in recent months. If he combines that with his athleticism and knowledge of the game, he will be an asset to the Illini team and to everyone else who associates with him the rest of his life.