Former prep great Gerald Willis III has a tattoo on his left shoulder that reads, “Only God can judge me.”
The soon-to-be Miami Hurricanes redshirt senior defensive tackle, a former five-star All-American who played his freshman season in 2014 for the Florida Gators before being dismissed for multiple transgressions, has had his challenges the past few years as well. Suspended more than once at UM, Willis took “a leave of absence’’ from playing in 2017, instead practicing on the scout team while he worked on getting his life in order.
“I had a lot of personal issues I had to handle off the field so I could make a comeback,” Willis conceded Thursday after practice, the first time he has spoken publicly in at least two years. “I just had a lot of family issues. I had to get my mind right so I could be able to focus this year. It worked a lot. I’m a changed person, a changed man.
“I’m a better person and I’m starting to become a better player.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Willis, from New Orleans, has secured what appears to be a stronghold on one of the starting spots to replace NFL-bound tackles Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh, who both left early to enter the upcoming draft. He now wears departed defensive end Chad Thomas’ No. 9 jersey instead of his former No. 91.
According to a fellow UM tackle and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, Willis has dominated in just about every way since rejoining the team in late August last year. Willis told the Miami Herald in 2015 that he had an anger problem, and has likely worked on some other issues as well during his time off. He said Thursday he is grateful to be back with his “brothers” and has been “more active’’ and “more talkative” with his teammates, “just having better relationships with people around the building.”
“When I first got back they had a team meeting,” Willis said. “I came in and everybody got on their feet and clapped. I just felt so welcomed and so good to be back.”
Physically, Willis looks as fit and toned as he has since arriving at UM in 2015, a season he had to redshirt per NCAA transfer rules. He said he’s now 6-3 and 295 pounds, up 10 pounds from last season.
Willis played nine games as a redshirt sophomore in 2016, totaling 19 tackles. But he tore the MCL in his right knee against Florida State, missed two games, and battled through the pain to finish the season before undergoing surgery. He is fully healed now, and was “a terror on the scout team all year long,” coach Mark Richt said. “No one could hardly block the guy.”
Miami needs him badly. The Canes not only lost end Thomas to graduation and juniors Norton and McIntosh, they lost senior standout end Trent Harris and senior reserve tackle Anthony Moten.
“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, because ultimately this game will end for him at some point anyway. … And the fact that what he does on the football field as a player is really exciting, I can’t wait to see him play in the fall.”
Diaz said Willis is UM’s top tackle and “has been our best guy all camp, consistently making plays … and also being a consistent menace down after down to the offense.”
Fellow tackle Pat Bethel said the two have made each other better. “Having my brother out here with us, that’s amazing,” Bethel said. “We’re just ready to get out there.”
Among his documented episodes at UF, Willis had a physical altercation with former reserve quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg over a pair of cleats and was penalized for a cheap-shot push in the facemask of former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston while Willis was standing on the sideline and not in the game. FSU scored five plays later.
That likely feels like ages ago.
Today, Willis is thrilled to be in Coral Gables.
“I love the environment,” he said, when asked to compare UF and UM. “There’s just a lot of sunshine. It’s a city, not like a college town. You have a lot more stuff to do outside of football. I just love the community.”
Is he hungrier not having played last season?
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I’m hungry. I’m ready to eat. I’m ready to show people that I belong.