CHAMPAIGN – Illinois fans may notice Ashante Williams on the punt and punt return teams this Saturday against Indiana.
For the team’s leading tackler, those are duties added to an already busy schedule on game days. He’s essentially the only player on the roster that can play the ‘Star’ position, a safety/linebacker hybrid that can defend both the run and pass.
And he’s on the kickoff team, too, leaving little time to catch a breath during games.
“I welcome the challenge,” Williams said. “I like playing, so it’s nothing I can’t handle.”
The senior from Mayfield Ohio has been one of the few bright spots for a struggling Illinois team, currently mired in a four-game losing streak.
He leads the team with 48 tackles and his 60-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed the season-opening win against Western Michigan.
While his individual play is at an all-time high, the team’s overall performance doesn’t allow for Williams to cherish his own accomplishments.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “…It just hurts for me as well as the other guys having the season that we’re having knowing that we’re a way better team than we show. The way we prepare off the field, the fans don’t really get to see all the dedication and what goes into a week of preparation, and we just feel sorry that we’re letting everybody down, as well as ourselves.”
Williams recalls a similar season when asked if he’s faced adversity such as this – 2009, his redshirt freshman year, when the team finished 3-7.
But that was different. Williams was young, not playing as much and the team was building toward two seasons with bowl wins.
Presently, this is Williams last go-around, meaning these games were supposed to be what Williams would down the road recall as the best times of his career.
Right now reminiscing about 2012 doesn’t seem like a promising proposition.
“Two victories isn’t going to cut it,” he said. “I feel like as a team and a senior class that’s not the way we want to finish our senior season and leave our legacy at the University of Illinois.”
So now what? The current record is what it is. That’s not changing. In response to a disappointing past two months, Williams has simplified his goals. The team needs to beat Indiana this weekend to keep a shot at a bowl game alive.
Those that think the season is a lost cause since a Big Ten title isn't happening and the previous weeks have offered up brutal, blowout losses haven’t listened to Williams speak.
There’s plenty to play for, especially when that internal clock starts ticking louder. Williams can hear it. December is approaching, marking the end of a career that peaked at the right time, just amid the wrong circumstances.
“If we lose another game I figure we’re mathematically out of the bowl picture,” he said. “Right now it’s do or die. We can’t lose any more games. We’re trying to win the day, that’s our motto.”