Monday, August 15, 2011

A new beginning: Darius Willis thrilled to be at QB, er, LB for KU

KU linebackers Huldon Tharp, left, Darius Willis and Steven Johnson.

KU linebackers Huldon Tharp, left, Darius Willis and Steven Johnson.


It didn’t raise so much as an eyebrow when Darius Willis reported to Kansas University’s preseason football drills sporting a new number.

Willis, KU’s third-year sophomore inside linebacker from Houston by way of Buffalo University, explained the new digit was his old high school number.

“It was something I wore before and felt comfortable in it,” Willis said. “If you feel good, you’re going to play good.”

Fair enough. So his old No. 39 was gone, replaced by No. 2.

It so happens, though, No. 2 was in use, by sophomore incumbent quarterback Jordan Webb.

Again, no problem. Willis appealed to a higher power — coach Turner Gill — who said the two could share the 2.

They play on opposite sides and look nothing alike. Aside from differing races, at 6-foot-3, 243 pounds, Willis has three inches and 30-plus pounds on Webb.

But here’s where it gets interesting.

As it turns out, Willis sported No. 2 at Houston Eisenhower High as a linebacker/quarterback. One of the reasons he headed off to distant Buffalo — where he was heralded as one of the highest-ranked recruits ever lured to the New York tundra — was that the head coach at the time, a fella by the name of Turner Gill, convinced Willis he’d be considered as a QB. Other schools projected him purely as a linebacker.

So here we have a former quarterback suddenly wearing the number of the current quarterback, playing for the coach who told him he’d have a shot at quarterback … does Willis, perhaps, want more than Webb’s number? Might he want his job, too?

“Nah, man,” Willis — who, by way of comparison, is just two inches shorter but a couple of pounds heavier than Pittsburgh Steelers QB “Big” Ben Roethlisberger — said with a smile and shake of the head. “I’m pretty happy where I’m at.”

He means that in more ways than one.

Content not to line up under center but a couple of rows opposite it, Willis also is tickled to have landed at KU, where he was reunited with Gill.

“I’m enjoying every day playing with my teammates,” Willis said. “I’m enjoying myself.”

First, the backstory.

A decorated and sought-after recruit at Eisenhower, Willis was a nonqualifier in 2008, but eventually gained the necessary SAT score and landed in Buffalo in January, 2009.

Funny story: When Willis told his Houston friends he was Buffalo-bound, “A lot of people didn’t really know where Buffalo was,” Willis said. “A lot of people were like, what? They thought I was talking about the Bills. Some people were like, ‘Did somebody draft you?’ I was, like, no. People started looking into it and looking into the education and were, like, that’s a good choice.”

That fall, he cracked the starting lineup at middle linebacker and had 10 tackles, 21⁄2 for losses, in two starts before suffering a ruptured pectoral muscle that forced him to miss the rest of the season.

Gill left for KU after that season, and Willis went through spring drills before deciding to leave, too.

After a short recruitment, he landed at Kansas and sat out a season, during which he was named the Compete Team defensive player of the year.

So here you have a guy who was wooed by many of the schools of the Big 12 as a high schooler, who seemed destined for stardom at Buffalo before ending up at KU where, after a year of learning and working out, he has done nothing but add to his outside expectations.

“A lot of people when they see a player that’s my height and my weight and my stature,” Willis said, “with the ability I have to run around and make plays … a lot of people put hype on that type of person because they think he has the ability to accomplish all the things he wants.

“But, I would say my role on the team is just to come in and lead by example. A lot of dudes come in and want to get a lot of hype and things put on their back and feel like they have to do too much. My job is just to come in, be relaxed, play my game and try to lead my teammates to the best of my ability.”

As frustrating as last season was, Willis reckons it did nothing but make him better.

“Last year was a learning experience,” he said. “It was the first time I got to just sit back and learn from the older guys. It’s something I didn’t get to do when I first came in. Not red-shirting my freshman year, then red-shirting when I came here opened my eyes to a lot of things I didn’t see as a freshman. I feel like it helped me a lot. It matured me, slowed the game down a lot and helped me process the game a lot faster.”

It’s no secret Kansas has emphasized speed in recruiting, and in that regard Willis is a poster child.

“He’s a great player,” said sophomore weakside ’backer Huldon Tharp. “He’s really athletic, but still has some of the same size as the middle linebackers we’ve had in the past. He’s definitely got some really good leadership qualities and a good work ethic, so he should be helping us out a lot this year.”


Ben Kliewer 11 years, 1 month ago

It's not such a new concept. John Randle and Gabe Toomey both wore #1 and Adam Barmann and Nick Reid both wore #7. Fun article's Monday.

Dirk Medema 11 years, 1 month ago

Didn't realize Darius is a 4.5 guy - at MLB no less.

One question though, with the switch to a 3-4, does that slide Johnson into the middle along side Willis with Tharp on one side and Opurum on the other? Are Walker and Bakare just fresh legs?

hometownhawk 11 years, 1 month ago

That will probably be the base lineup, but in passing situations, I would expect to see Opurum move up to the DE spot and Bakare take his place at OLB.

KGphoto 11 years, 1 month ago

Where did you hear that? Not saying it isn't true, but I would love access to that info on a regular basis. That's a helluva scoop.

KGphoto 11 years, 1 month ago

Thanks for that!

Notables from Gridiron 1, 2011 in no particular order:

-Kale Pick's one hand snare running what looked like an out pattern. Meieresque!

-Daymond Patterson is an ankle breaker. I know, duh right? But with all the talk of the incoming speed you forget how quick he is. Remember.

-Apparently Steven Johnson is looking for the Higgs Boson because he's a Large Hadron Collider! Careful Steven, not to kill #25 or #3 with that racket, because they represent 2/3's of our Bonneville Backfield, and you nearly did.

-The other 1/3 of the Bonneville Backfield. #23 Anthony Pierson. Zing!

-#89 JaCorey Shepard. Zang!

-#83 Omigie's towering TD at the back of the end zone. To quote Mr. Miyagi, as I have before. "If do right, no can defense".

-#25 Brandon Bourbon again. A blue streak down the sideline. Finally I get to see it! A flat out Bonneville burn that left Opurum looking like Gilbert Brown and Johnson laid out grabbing air. Go Boy!

-If it weren't for the No Hitting the Red Guy rule, our boy #2 here, might have permanently fused together #2s with Webb. He had a bead. He also showed some good speed in a futile effort chasing Patterson down the sideline.

More Please.

kubiggestfan 11 years, 1 month ago

Let's go D-Will.....Show them what you are made of. Let's put together a great football season this year.

Kenneth Hillman 11 years, 1 month ago

Oh man great Gridiron episode!! Even with tempered expectations for the season I am FIRED UP!!!

KGphoto 11 years, 1 month ago

Can I order a KU football jersey with this on the front?

Oh wait! I want one with "Whatchu talk'n bout" on the back, above the number where the name Willis would normally go! Sort of XFL style.

KGphoto 11 years, 1 month ago

And I'd like to vote for Andrew Hartstock to get more stories.

KGphoto 11 years, 1 month ago

But I still can't find those buttons you promised.

jayhawkintexas 11 years, 1 month ago

The next thing ya know will be that Brock Berglund will line up at defensive end

Mike Kendall 11 years, 1 month ago

Man, that Willis dude----he is an imposing young man! Can't wait to see him pop somebody big time. Rock Chalk!

lv_jhwk 11 years, 1 month ago

Just wondering if anyone has an answer...given the NCAA rules regarding medical hardships, would Willis be able to get one for his one year at Buffalo? As good as it is to have him here now, it would be even better to have him an extra year beyond that.

lv_jhwk 11 years, 1 month ago

Thanks. I was hoping that two starts meant two games, and thus he had played less than a quarter of Buffalo's games.

Dirk Medema 11 years, 1 month ago

Rivals says 4.68. Hope he can put on about 60 lbs so he can move front & center wth the DT's. He'll be left in the dust at LB :-0

Dirk Medema 11 years, 1 month ago

Maybe he can bring his 4* DB teammate out, and we can get hi to switch from Tennessee.

KU_Alumn_2000 11 years, 1 month ago

AtlJaybird - Thanks for the recruiting information.

We REALLY NEED to aquire some darn good D-linemen in this next class !

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