Illinois wide receiver Chris James couldn't make the plays himself last year. But after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the Camp Rantoul preseason scrimmage, James lived through his roommate, quarterback Juice Williams.
Illinois wide receiver Chris James couldn't make the plays himself last year. But after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the Camp Rantoul preseason scrimmage, James lived through his roommate, quarterback Juice Williams. "Juice is my best friend,'' James said. "I told him that I would play through him. When he played well, I would play well. When he played poorly, I played poorly. I put that burden on him.'' Back on the practice field on the first day of spring drills Wednesday, James is determined to repay Williams for the enjoyable season last fall. A sophomore who used his redshirt season last fall after starting the final four games as a true freshman, James is a likely starter at outside receiver this fall. James' return is timely at a position where the Illini are still searching for athletic playmakers. "Chris has been a guy who had a really high football IQ,'' said offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. "He understood passing game concepts in terms of inside and outside receiver. He didn't lose a beat in terms of the mental part of it. Now it's a matter of knocking the rust off. "We've moved him to outside receiver. It gives us more experience. We're trying to put the best four guys in the game at receiver. Anybody who gives us a chance to make plays in the passing game will play a key role.'' After missing Illinois' eye-opening season a year ago, the 6-foot, 188-pound James plans to be in the middle of the action. The former Chicago Morgan Park star caught five passes for 76 yards in his rookie season, including a 47-yarder in the season finale against Northwestern. "I feel like they moved me to a position to play me,'' James said. "It's all on me. The coaches have done their job. It's all on me. "Juice is really counting on me to come back. He's putting the burden on me to fulfill what I didn't do last year -- making plays in critical situations when I'm needed, make first downs, move the chains.'' James limped off the field and thought it was just a sprain during the team's main preseason scrimmage, but the medical staff told him the following day the ligament was torn and his season was done. James underwent surgery in early September. "We definitely hoped to have his game experience,'' Locksley said. "He played some as a freshman. When he went down, that set him back and set us back.'' Days later, he hit rock bottom. He couldn't find the Illinois-Western Illinois game on TV. It was hidden on an alternate Big Ten Network channel. "I was so ticked off,'' he said. "I kept calling my brother and asking him, 'What's the play?' '' There were the days when James "walked like a zombie,'' he said, still unable to bend his knee. It took five minutes to shuffle to the bathroom. But by the end of the season, James practiced for the Rose Bowl, even though there were no plans for him to play. He dressed for the game and went through pregame warmups. "That's my best friend,'' Williams said. "He's a great target with sure hands every time. Just having him with the rest of the receivers will be excellent. (The injury) was difficult for him. He took it hard for the first couple of days. After awhile, he accepted it and worked hard. "With his sure hands on the outside and (Benn) on the inside, I just pretty much pick a target, close my eyes and throw it.'' James will be glad to repay his roommate and make the big play. John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.