Less than two months from now, his ability to play the sport could afford him a free college education.
Willis, a senior at Piedmont High School, was named a first-team selection to the Alabama Sports Writers Association Class 3A all-state squad, released today.
He led the Bulldogs in receiving with 52 catches for 860 yards and six touchdowns as they went 12-2 and advanced to the fourth round of the AHSAA state playoffs.
What Willis didn’t have in experience he made up for in effort and athleticism. He molded himself into a team captain and legitimate deep threat in coach Steve Smith’s vaunted spread offense.
“He improved immensely from his first year to last year,” Smith said. “Getting that first season under his belt and an offseason of workout really helped him. He went to a couple camps to help his route-running and really became a big-time player for us.”
Willis is joined by three of his teammates on the first-team. Athlete Jamaal Johnson and defensive tackle Mickey Jackson both appear on the squad for the second consecutive season while sophomore linebacker Jamie Major is making his debut.
Other first-teamers include: Talladega County Central offensive lineman Terrell Garrett (1A), Pleasant Valley’s defensive back Zach Atherton, Lineville linemen Daniel Johnson and Scott Kerley (2A), Anniston running back Troymaine Pope and linebacker Quinton Royal (4A) and Oxford defensive lineman Allan Carson and defensive back Trae Elston (6A).
Willis had only played pickup football at the school with friends before being talked into going out for the team. What he did have was size, at 6-foot-2 and 185-pounds, and athleticism, with a 30-plus inch vertical leap and 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash.
Nonetheless, his path to stardom on the gridiron wasn’t a crystal stair.
“The toughest part was all the work and dedication it took to be as good as we wanted to be,” Willis said. “Everyday we were out there trying to do something to get better.”
Then, there was the little matter becoming accustomed to getting hit. That indoctrination came early.
“I remember my first day out there,” Willis said. “I took about four or five shots from the seniors. That right there was my wake up call. That let me know that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. But it did take some getting used to.”
Willis was a relatively unknown going into the season on a roster that included its fair share of studs on both sides of the ball. However, it didn’t take him long to make his mark. In Week 2, Willis caught a game-winning touchdown pass from 9-yards out to on the final play of the Bulldogs 23-20 victory on the road against Susan Moore. He finished the game with six receptions for 106 yards.
“After the first four or five games of the season teams knew they had to pay attention to him,” Smith said.
After backing up former Piedmont standout Christian Cantrell at cornerback as a junior, the Bulldogs coaching staff decided to utilize Willis’s quickness and strength, he also bench presses 250 pounds, at safety opposite Johnson. He tied for the team lead with five interceptions to go along with 11 pass breakups and 51 tackles.
He also was dangerous on special teams. He returned 14 kickoffs for 210 yards and nine punts, two of which he took for touchdowns.
In January, Smith said Willis will likely visit Football Bowl Subdivision schools Wofford and Presbyterian, two of a number of schools interested in Willis who’s developed a knack for snagging the ball at its highest point. His success at the high school level and the prospect of potentially playing at the next level has taken him by surprise.
“I was not expecting that I would have the opportunity to play college football,” Willis said. “Hopefully, I’ll have the chance to do that.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.