There is a quote that says: “there’s nothing as exciting as a comeback – seeing someone with dreams, watching them fail, and then getting a second chance.”
University of Miami redshirt senior defensive tackle Gerald Willis has been given a second chance. Some might say he’s been given third and fourth chances, but he’s taking his current chance – his last college chance – more seriously than he has any other.
Back and active, the Hurricanes are hoping that Willis’ change will result in him living up to his extremely high potential and being the much-needed No. 1 defensive tackle needs heading into the 2018 season.
Willis’ college career began at the University of Florida as a highly-touted defensive line prospect. During his one season in Gainesville, Willis had multiple off-the-field incidents – including two altercations with teammates.
He was subsequently dismissed from Florida at the end of his freshman year and chose to transfer to Miami. Willis sat out the requisite year (2015) for transferring and was looking for a fresh start with the Canes in 2016.
Trouble found Willis again at the start of the 2016 season, as he served a one-game suspension for an undisclosed reason. He worked his way into the Canes’ D-Line rotation and ended up playing in nine games – recording 13 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Willis did not play in Miami’s win over West Virginia in the Russell Athletics Bowl due to an injury an MCL injury, which required surgery.
Willis spent the 2017 offseason, into the spring, rehabbing and working his way back to the active roster – and was returning to his peak form according to sources – but it was all derailed over the summer.
Willis took a “leave of absence” from the football team this past July – citing personal reasons. It was an abrupt, almost jarring announcement, but he ultimately returned to the team right before the start of fall camp in August.
“I had a lot of personal issues I had to handle off the field so that I could make a comeback,” Willis said after Thursday’s spring practice.
“I had a lot of family issues. I had to get my mind right, so that I could be able to focus this year.”
He didn’t participate in any games, only practicing with the team as a part of the team’s practice squad.
Multiple times throughout the 2017 season, Miami head coach Mark Richt commended Willis for his work and touted how good he looked in practices – once calling him a “hard to block” and a “terror”.
When told of how highly Richt spoke of him, Willis said he was just trying to do his job.
“I just made plays,” Willis said. “I tried my best to be the big man in the middle and make plays.”
Those sentiments have continued this spring.
“He’s a new guy. He really is. He has really changed. He’s an outstanding young man. He’s a great guy in our program,” Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said Thursday.
“He has done everything we have asked. It would be unfair to hold something over somebody. That’s just not the way that life works, to me. All we ask is that he’s a great teammate and does everything the program asks, and he has been straight A’s across the board…I can’t wait to watch him in the fall.”
Willis’ turnaround couldn’t come at a better time for the Canes.
Losing junior defensive tackles RJ McIntosh and Kendrick Norton to the NFL Draft left two large holes right in the front of Miami’s defense. McIntosh was voted the team’s Defensive MVP this past season after he racked up 52 total tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, seven pass breakups, and a fumble return.
Norton, or “Big Thick”, recorded 65 total tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss over a two-year span.
While Norton can’t fill that nearly 625-pound void by himself, he can fill the role of being UM’s No. 1 defensive tackle and set an example for the other talented – but young – interior linemen on the roster.
“He’s our [number] one tackle. He has been our best guy all of camp, consistently,” Diaz said. “He is making the plays that we know he’s got that knack for making, but also being a consistent menace, down after down, to the offense.”
One thing that has helped Willis in his comeback has been the way his teammates have wrapped their arms around him.
Junior defensive lineman Pat Bethel said the team has done its part to keep motivating Willis.
“We’re a brotherhood and if you’re at home and you notice one of your brothers is missing, you’re going to notice that and you’ve got to do something about it,” Bethel said.
“Whatever we can do to help pushing each other and making each other better men, better players and better people all around.”
That support has allowed Willis to set a better example for Miami’s other defensive linemen.
“I’m a changed person, I’m a changed man. I changed a lot of ways I used to have,” Willis said. “I think I’m a better person and I’m starting to be a better player. I’m being more active, talking to my teammates, just having better relationships with people around the building and stuff like that.”
“Since I’m a vet, I’m just working with the young guys every day. Everything that [Kendrick] Norton, [RJ] McIntosh, and Chad [Thomas] showed me last year, I’m trying to give to the young guys so we can have a great year just like last year,” Willis added.
Young guys like 6-foot-5, 275-pound sophomore Jon Ford, who would likely be the starting defensive tackle next to Willis if the season began next week.
“I think we can do better than last year…because we keeping working every day with [defensive line coach Jess] Simpson and he’s teaching us things that [former defensive line coach Craig] Kuligowski didn’t. And it’s just a lot of new things I’m starting to love about how he’s coaching us.”
“I’m hungry. I’m ready to eat,” Willis said.
“I’m just ready to play…just show people that I belong and that I’m back.”
Miami’s ninth session of the spring will be an on-campus scrimmage.
Unlike next Saturday’s (April 14) scrimmage, which will be open to the public and held at Hard Rock Stadium, this Saturday’s “game” will be closed to public and the media.
As it has been throughout this spring, Richt didn’t address the media on Thursday and could not confirm any details about the scrimmage.
The program usually gives the media statistics from the scrimmage and Richt is scheduled to address reporters Saturday afternoon afterward.
When asked about it on Thursday, Diaz did confirm that the coaching staff plans on treating the scrimmage like a “real game.”
“We tell them it’s a game,” Diaz said.
“College football is the only sport where you don’t play an exhibition game against somebody else. So, this is a preseason game for us – similar to the NFL – so the accountability is real.”
“The guys have that real-game accountability of their positive plays but also their negative plays. What you get to see – for a young guy for an example – is can you rebound for making a negative play? If your man catches the ball for a touchdown, are you in the tank?”
“We start this season in chaos…LSU in that environment and there’s no way we can practice for it other than in these scrimmages, so its a big part of our evaluation,” Diaz added.
ACC Game Staying In Charlotte
The Atlantic Coast Conference reached a 10-year extension on its agreement with the city of Charlotte to keep the league’s football championship game in North Carolina through 2030, the conference announced Thursday.
Miami won the ACC Coastal division and reached the ACC title game for the first time since joining the conference in 2017. The Hurricanes fell to defending ACC champion Clemson 38-3 in a game that showed that the Canes were improved but still not quite ready to contend with a heavyweight like the Tigers.
Seven of the past eight ACC title games have been played at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium – the home of the Carolina Panthers.
Even though the Panthers are currently up for sale, ACC commissioner John Swofford said had little, if no, impact on the agreement to keep the conference championship game in the Tar Heel State.
“Our relationship with the Panthers over the years couldn’t have been better,” Swofford said. “Neither side saw a reason to slow the discussions down in terms the sale of the team.”
In the seven title games played at BOA Stadium, crowds have averaged more than 70,000 fans with four sellouts Swofford said – an improvement from the league’s early title game history, which includes non-sellouts in Jacksonville and Tampa, Florida.