Greg Cote

This UM defensive star’s odd journey could end with honor no Hurricane has won since ’94

The name not there was the one that jumped out at you. A 2018 All-Atlantic Coast Conference first-team defense without Miam’s Gerald Willis III makes about as much sense as a BLT sandwich without the bacon.

No matter. The Hurricanes football program has let you know what it thinks of Willis with a new campaign and promotional video nominating the senior defensive tackle for All-American honors — the only Cane getting such a national push.

“He deserves it,” Canes third-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz told us Wednesday. “It’s hard to find a defensive tackle that’s been more productive this season, from start to finish. He’s been dominant vs. the run and dominant vs. the pass. He wins with speed and he wins with power. He’s so much physically better than the offensive linemen tasked with blocking him.”

This Canes season at 7-5 entering the bowl game has failed to rise to expectations, but Gerald Willis hasn’t. UM believes his season has been among the greatest ever by a Canes DT, and the company there is good indeed.

Hanging from rafters in UM’s new indoor practice facility are the names of the 72 players in school history who have made an All-America team. Thirty-two of those have been consensus A-A’s, but none since 2004. Willis would be the first Canes DT to be a consensus pick or to make any All-America team since Warren Sapp in 1994.

“That’s a big deal at this school,” said Diaz.

Coach Mark Richt mentions Jerome Brown, Russell Maryland and Sapp in the promo video and says “Gerald Willis has put together a season that puts him in that rarefied air.”

Willis made the all-conference second-team behind two defensive tackles from Clemson because being the No. 2-ranked ream in the country will get you attention that playing for an unranked 7-5 team does not.

“I felt kind of bad,” Willis admitted. “But life does not promise you anything. It’s really motivation. I love being the underdog. Its a big chip on my shoulder.”

The Tigers’ Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence also are rated higher as NFL draft prospects than Willis.

Here’s the thing, though. Making the All-America team is an individual award based on this season, and Willis led the entire ACC in tackles-for-loss with 18, a total that led all FBS-level defensive tackles nationwide. No Cane has had as many TFL’s since 2006. Willis had had four sacks and 59 tackles as the captain of the NCAA’s No. 2-ranked defense.

UM has playmakers all over its defense. Linebacker Shaq Quarterman made the All-ACC first team, safety Jaquan Johnson joined Willis on the second team, cornerback Trajan Bandy made the third team, and end Joe Jackson, linebacker Michael Pinckney, corner Michael Jackson and safety Sheldrick Redwine earned honorable mention.

The tone is set, though, by the 6-3, 295-pound Willis and his pocket-crashing, run-stopping dominance up front.

As remarkable as his season has been his journey to get to it.

Willis grew up in a rough part of New Orleans, once seeing a cousin shot to death.

He began his college career as a Florida Gator and played as a freshman, but his temper and fighting got him dismissed from the team.

“I was a knucklhead,” he admitted on Wednesday. “I had attitude problems, always getting in trouble.”

He had to sit out the 2015 season after transferring, was a modest contributor for the Canes in ‘16 before knee surgery, then missed the entire 2017 season on what Richt called a “leave of absence” to deal with personal and family issues including a grandmother sick with cancer. He played only on the scout team.

“The last four years before this have been like being locked in a cage,” he said.

A large tattoo on his left shoulder reads, ‘Only God Can Judge Me.’

“I’m a changed man,” Willis describes himself, from the “knucklehead” kicked out of Gainesville to the young man who finally blossomed — big — as a senior. “Miami was my second opportunity and I didn’t want to mess it up.”

When last year’s stalwart UM defensive tackles R.J. McIntosh and Kendrick Norton both left early for the NF Draft, Willis had his opening. But it was his attitude that allowed him to seize his last chance before his talent cold take over.

“When he knew he was not going to play [last season] there was a moment of decision where he had to turn that into a positive instead of something punitive,” Diaz said. “The light came on. He has been able to transform himself as a person.”

All-American selectors weighing Willis’ resume’ should consider not only his nation-leading tackles-for-loss, but perhaps his perseverance, too.

“I’ve been through adversity and stuff. Really been a roller coaster,” Willis said. “I’ve surprised myself a lot. And this season is everything I’ve been working for the past four years.”

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