University of Miami

New home, new attitude for UM’s Gerald Willis

Gerald Willis takes classes to control anger.
Gerald Willis takes classes to control anger. Miami Herald Staff

The Florida Gators dismissed him.

And the Miami Hurricanes are “loving him up,” according to coach Al Golden and his players.

Gerald Willis, the nationally heralded defensive end who couldn’t control his temper last season in Gainesville and got in trouble repeatedly because of it, was allowed to speak to the media Sunday for likely the last time this season.

The sophomore transfer, clearly contrite for some of his well-documented transgressions, said he is using a method learned during a class to help him handle his emotions:

“I just count to three,” Willis, 19, said. “I have to walk away. I can’t do what I did in my past. Even if it hurts me so bad, I just gotta walk away.

“I’ve practiced that a lot. I’ve been doing some classes with that and I’ve been practicing.”

The Hurricanes just hope that practice makes perfect, though there probably will be plenty of doubters.

Willis, who graduated from the same high school in New Orleans — Edna Karr — as his off-campus Canes roommate and tight end Standish Dobard, was kicked off the UF team after the season, which included these publicized incidents:

A physical altercation with former UF reserve quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg last October over a pair of cleats — police were called, both players withdrew their complaints and no charges were filed.

A cheap-shot push in the facemask of former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston last November, while Willis was standing on the sideline and not in the game — UF got flagged 15 yards and FSU scored five plays later.

Another altercation with a teammate after the Birmingham Bowl, a game in which Willis forced a fumble during a goal-line stand.

A five-star and four-star prep recruit, the 6-2, 255-pound 2014 Under Armour All-American was a USA Today first-team All-USA who led Edna Karr to four consecutive Class 4A state final berths. He had 289 tackles with 62 tackles-for-loss, 36 sacks, one pick and one defensive touchdown in high school.

Tough season

At Florida, he played in eight games and had what most view as a disappointing season: 14 tackles, two quarterback hurries, the forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

“He’s aggressive. We like that,” said UM nose tackle Earl Moore.

Willis’ older brother is New York Giants rookie safety Landon Collins, who played at Alabama. Willis said Sunday that he chose Florida because he wanted to play in the SEC, but that the Hurricanes were always a favorite team growing up.

Although he loved being a Gator, Willis said the bond he feels at UM is different.

“This team,” he said, “is more like a family. This team, I just feel something special is going to happen. I wish I could be part of it this year, but I’ll wait for my turn next year.”

He said he’s making progress by “opening up more” and “talking to somebody everyday about my problems. I’m starting to get better at communication. …This is my second opportunity and I just don’t want to mess it up.”

Willis, whose tattoo on his left shoulder reads “Only God can judge me,” said Dobard has helped him stay focused and out of trouble by texting him regularly to see how he’s doing and making sure he’s tending to his academics.

“It means a lot that the guys are looking out for me,” he said.

UM defensive end Chad Thomas, also a sophomore, said he roomed with Willis in the Under Armour All-America Game and has done what he can to make him feel at home.

“We were already good friends,” Thomas said. “When he came here I opened my heart to help him. That’s my teammate now, so I don’t really care where he came from.”

More comfortable

Per NCAA rules, Willis will have to sit out this season while he gets acclimated to South Florida and another major college program. He said he “got some reps in the scrimmage” last Thursday and is being used in drills during practice.

Golden said “it was a little bit difficult at first” for Willis, but he’s starting to get more comfortable.

“I’m excited about him,” Golden said. “He’s got a great spirit. He’s growing up and we’ve just got to keep him structured and keep loving him and making sure we have enough peers around him to continue to help him grow and get better.”

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