UM Defensive Lineman Gerald Willis ‘Ready to Ball’
He’s known by one letter: “G,’’ for Gerald.
But those who line up across from University of Miami fifth-year senior defensive tackle Gerald Willis III likely have a lot more descriptive initials to describe this 6-4, 300-pound, supposed beast of a player with 22-percent body fat.
Among them: “S’’ for scary, “I’’ for intense, “U’’ for unstoppable or unblockable, or, according to coach Mark Richt, “unbelievable.’’
No matter what you call him, Willis, a former Florida Gator and now Hurricanes believer about to play his first season since 2016, by all accounts will step right into the starting role as a nose guard who is expected to smoothly replace the major talents of current NFL tackles RJ McIntosh and Kendrick Norton.
“I love G. I missed him, man,’’ Canes linebacker Michael Pinckney, another future NFL prospect who couldn’t stop raving about Willis, said Sunday after Day Two of Canes fall practice. “That whole year he was out— man... He’s quick, he’s fast, he’s strong, he’s violent— everything you look for in a nose guard.’’
Added center Tyler Gauthier: “If you beat him on his first move, he’s got a second move, a third move, a fourth move ...He can beat you with an arsenal of moves.’’
Willis, who has a tattoo on his left shoulder that reads, “Only God can judge me,” transferred from Florida after his troubled 2014 freshman season at Florida. He came to the Gators as an Under Armour All-American and USA Today first-team All-USA out of New Orleans Edna Karr High School.
But at UF, among his documented episodes, 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 has to feel like forever ago for Willis, who told the Miami Herald in a 2015 interview that he was actively working on an anger problem.
“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a long time,’’ Willis said Sunday about soon being able to return to the football field. “...I got my body right, got my relationships right with my family. I’m a better person. I’m ready to ball and play with my brothers.
“I almost took it for granted. Ball is my life. It’s my ticket, you know? ...It’s just a blessing to be here.’’
After sitting out 2015 in Coral Gables, per NCAA transfer rules, Willis played nine games for UM as a redshirt sophomore in 2016, totaling 19 tackles and 1.5 sacks. 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.
Last season he again tackled personal and family issues, took a leave of absence and returned to spend the rest of the season as a scout team player who overwhelmed anyone who went against him, said Richt. The coach said Sunday that he loves all his players, but that Willis “has a special place right now” and that he “just terrorized everybody every day’’ during 2017 as a scout-teamer.
“No one could hardly block the guy,” Richt said last year, adding Sunday that Willis “could have moped and pouted...for this or that reason, but he didn’t. He brought it every day.
“And now he can bring it for real. I’m just super proud of him.’’
“He was doing things that weren’t the way they were supposed to be, in all areas,’’ Richt said. “He took ownership of it. He did what he had to do to get right. He truly is one of our leaders.
“You’ve got [new defensive line] coach [Jess] Simpson coaching him for the first time, and he’s like, ‘This guy is unbelievable. This guy is awesome.’’’
Willis is especially looking forward to that Sept. 2 opener against LSU at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“I really want to ball against LSU,’’ Willis said. “That’s my hometown. I want to...be able to give the fans a show.’’
▪ Richt said he was pleased with Sunday’s energetic practice. “It was just as hot today as it was yesterday and much better result in regards to guys cramping up and things like that,’’ he said of the temperatures approaching 90 and humidity that seemed equally stifling. “That’s a tribute to our strength staff, our nutritionist and how hard the kids work.
“I love the way we practiced— with the right focus and right intensity and right competition level. Defense pretty much stormed the offense yesterday and the offense got their feelings hurt, I think, a little bit. They came back and had a much better day.’’