There weren't many positive takeaways from the Miami Hurricanes Week 1 shellacking; poor offensive line play and abysmal quarterbacking plagued the Hurricanes against LSU. But despite a 33-17 loss, senior defensive tackle Gerald Willis III was a bright spot and arguably the best player on the field for either team.
It's been a rocky road for Willis to this point in his career. He was a highly regarded recruit out of high school and originally committed to the University of Florida. He was suspended multiple times and eventually transferred to Miami which forced him to sit out the 2015 season due to NCAA transfer rules. Willis saw action in nine games as a reserve in 2016, flashing playmaking potential but continuing to face disciplinary issues. He took a leave of absence from the team and sat out the 2017 season.
While that's far from an ideal background, all indications are that he's focused and ready to make an impact this season for the Canes. Head coach Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz both raved this summer about his practice habits and awarded him the defensive leadership award.
Racking up eight tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack and a pass breakup against LSU, Willis made a monster impact in his first game action since 2016 and was near unblockable.
Willis will face questions about 2014-2017, but the final act of his college career couldn't be off to a better start. He's the type of explosive interior presence the NFL is looking for. Let's examine his dominant performance against LSU to shed light on his NFL upside.
Willis is explosive, powerful and effective with his hands. He's never content being blocked and battles throughout every rep to disengage and work to the football.
The timing of his execution on this sack is precise. He reads LSU LG Garrett Brumfield's pass set and quickly attacks half a man once he opens his hips. Brumfield is wide with his hands which makes it easy for Willis to keep his pads clear of his punch and from there it's about flexibility and effort to carry his hips through the rush angle. Willis turns his swim move into a rip, doesn't allow Brumfield to ride him past the quarterback, and makes the play.
Playmaking defensive tackles are effective with their hands, have good processing skills and have the athletic ability to finish -- that's Willis.
This rep is a terrific example of Willis hitting a club-swim combo, working through contact, finding the football and making a play in the backfield. He's a disruptive interior presence.
The days of space-eating run stuffers are behind us. The most valuable defensive tackles are the ones that can get into the backfield and makes plays in a large radius. On this rep, Willis illustrates the ability to do just that.
The right tackle was tasked with unenviable responsibility of reach blocking Willis. Willis dips his shoulder and works laterally down the line of scrimmage to bottle up the running back for a loss. That's impressive mobility and flexibility for a man of his size.
Willis isn't just a high-effort penetrator; his anchor is stout and he's capable of controlling the line of scrimmage and winning at the point of attack. Again taking advantage of wide hands and waist bending from Brumfield, Willis beats him with an arm over. Willis then faces LSU's center and beats him with active hands to bench press him off his frame, find the football and finish. His vision, processing, hand usage, power and athletic ability are all impressive traits.
After a disappointing four years, the last six months has helped restore the promise of Willis coming out of high school, when he was Rivals No. 35 overall player in his class.
There's no disputing his talent and if he continues to play as he did against LSU then the discussion will quickly turn into how high of an NFL Draft pick he can become.
Of course Willis will continue to make sure he's clean off the field but comments like this from Diaz
“It’s like he’s a new guy,” Diaz said of Willis. “He has really changed. He’s an outstanding young man. He’s done everything we’ve asked. We’re super exited about who he is as a person."
And this from Richt:
“I do love them all – I love all these guys – but [Gerald Willis] has a special place right now. I don’t know how to say it, but he has got his life on track in a really positive way.
He was doing things that weren’t the way they were supposed to be, in all areas. He took ownership of it. He did what he had to do to get right. And now, he truly is one of our leaders. You’ve got [defensive line coach Jess] Simpson coaching him for the first time, and he’s like, ‘This guy is unbelievable. This guy is awesome.’ He knows nothing but the new ‘G.’ I’m just really proud of him.”
...provide plenty of evidence that Willis is a changed man. The sky is the limit if he sustains his new ways.