Hard work pays off during Hurricanes Pro Day
All afternoon, Mel Kiper Jr. wondered aloud on ESPN why Gerald Willis hadn’t been picked. For most of the third day of the 2019 NFL Draft, the Miami Hurricanes defensive tackle topped the Draft analyst’s list of best remaining players, yet he tumbled all the way through the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds Saturday.
Willis, who led the Atlantic Coast Conference in tackles for loss in 2018, will now have to try to make it as an undrafted free agent. The defensive lineman is signing with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent, NFL Network reported.
“I don’t get that one,” Kiper said at the end of the sixth round while Willis remained undrafted. Earlier Saturday, Kiper mentioned he thought Willis could have gone as early as the second round.
Based on his production as a senior at Miami, Willis was clearly worth an early selection. A pair of injuries in the pre-Draft process, plus some previous off-the-field issues, might have scared teams away, though, and the 6-foot-2, 302-pound terror had to spend three days waiting on a phone call that never came. The specific reason for his surprising plunge is not yet clear.
Willis’ path had already been trying before this weekend. The Hurricanes supported him through dark times and Willis came out of them a well-loved, seemingly model citizen.
“It has been a long journey,’’ previously said Willis, whose tattoo on his left shoulder reads “Only God can judge me.”
It was an excruciating wait after the Draft began Thursday. The Canes had to wait until Saturday, the final day of the draft, to get their first pick: defensive back Sheldrick Redwine to the Cleveland Browns. But Willis was projected to be the first Cane selected in the Draft with most analysts pegging him as a Friday selection
Willis, a five-star prospect out of New Orleans Edna Karr High School, led UM’s fourth-ranked defense in 2018 with 18 tackles for loss. He had 59 tackles, four sacks, two pass breakups, five quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery, and was named a second-team All-American by the Associated Press, Football Writers Association of America and Sports Illustrated.
However, he played just one full season in college, despite it being an excellent one. And Willis had previous disciplinary issues, as well as recent injury concerns.
A dislocated finger against FSU and groin injury against Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale set Willis back and prevented him from competing in the Pinstripe Bowl and working out at the NFL Combine in March. He tweaked his hamstring running his first 40 (unofficial 5.1 seconds) at UM’s Pro Day on March 25, so scouts saw him perform in a limited capacity.
But possibly the most significant concerns regarding Willis stemmed from his previous off-the-field issues.
He transferred to UM after his 2014 freshman season at Florida, where he was dismissed. Among his documented episodes at UF, Willis had a physical altercaton with former reserve quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg over a pair of cleats and was penalized for a cheap-shot push in the facemask of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston while Willis was standing on the sideline and not in the game.
Willis was suspended more than once at UM, then took a leave of absence from playing in 2017, instead practicing on the scout team while he got his life in order. He made life hell for the offensive scout teamers, who couldn’t come close to blocking him.
Then, in 2018, he did everything right, becoming a team leader on and off the field and gaining the respect, almost adoration, of his teammates and coaches. He was always respectful, kind and willing to answer any questions in his dealings with the UM media from Day One.
“It’s like he’s a new guy,’’ UM coach Manny Diaz said. “He has really changed. He’s an outstanding young man...as solid of a human being as we have in our football program. ... He’s a guy that every day just absorbed everything that [former D-line coach] Jess Simpson taught him and has taken his game to an elite level.’’
Added talented Canes linebacker Michael Pinckney, a future NFL prospect who chose to stay for his senior season instead of turning pro: “I love G. I missed him, man. 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.’’
Former UM coach Mark Richt said before the Pinstripe Bowl that “Gerald is a remarkable person who has authored a remarkable story of strength, perseverance and determination. We look forward to seeing where the next steps of his journey take him.’’
Kiper said earlier this week that wherever he goes, Willis could be penciled in as a starter. “I don’t know about Pro Bowl caliber, but he’s right there with I think the second tier of defensive tackles. I love his leverage, I love Willis’ technique — he gets into that backfield. He can get down the line. The way he uses his hands. When you look back three, four years from now, he may be an underrated prospect coming out of this draft.”
Willis’ brother is Landon Collins, the three-time former New York Giants Pro Bowl safety who signed a six-year, $84 million deal with the Washington Redskins in March. They talk to each other daily.
When asked at the NFL Scouting Combine what it would be like to play with Landon, Willis said, “Man, that would be great. We always talk about that. I know he’d have more interceptions if I was on the D-line.’’