The car broke down on a highway just outside of Kansas City. Calvin Willis, who spent his life working in body shops, mostly as a detailer, pulled over to give the man a jump.
A few months later, Willis stopped by the local middle school to enroll his children. The man with the car trouble was in the hallway filling up water jugs; he was the school’s football coach and recognized Willis as the good Samaritan. They began talking and soon, Willis had signed up one of his sons, 11-year-old Jordan, to play football.
A decade later, Jordan Willis isn’t the fastest riser in the 2017 draft class, but he’s perhaps the steadiest riser. He is in Tampa meeting with the Buccaneers today, one of his 15 private workouts or team visits, and it seems feasible he could sneak into the first round. A 6' 4″, 255-pound pass rusher from Kansas State—a defensive end who could transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker—Willis made a statement at the combine with a 4.53 40 time (best of all defensive linemen) and 39-inch vertical leap (second to Myles Garrett). At his pro day, he moved seamlessly between linebacker and defensive line drills, quashing concerns he appeared stiff on film. Scouts routinely compliment Willis on his hand work, a byproduct of working with Hall of Fame offensive lineman Will Shields, one of his mentors. Willis is a darling of Pro Football Focus, which ranked his 80 total quarterback pressures in 2016 as second most in the country. A three-year starter, Willis graduated third in Kansas State history with 26 career sacks.
“I literally don’t think I can identify when he made the biggest jump,” says Mark Simoneau, the former Kansas State and NFL linebacker who now owns a private gym, and has trained Willis since high school. “He’s consistently improved every single year.” Texted one area scout who has studied Willis: “He’s mature. Good work ethic. Shouldn’t have many problems adapting to next level.” And while the story of how Willis discovered football is a sweet anecdote, it’s also a peak into the upbringing that helped him get here.
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Calvin Willis has polished hoods and removed scratches at the same body shop for 20 years, and every time he made more money, he moved his family to a better situation. (The body shop, by the way, is owned by Rick Hendrick, the owner of Hendrick Motorsports, which explains why Jordan Willis is a big NASCAR fan). Jordan is one of 11 children—four older brothers and two older sisters, three younger brothers and one younger sister—and he has moved a total of six times, including switching grade schools twice and middle schools twice, all across greater Kansas City. “I got a lot of diversity,” he says. “Whether it was a social education when we lived in the inner city, and I had a private education as well, so I got a wide variety of different experiences.”
As a sophomore at Rockhurst, an all-boys prep school, Willis asked his coach how he could get to college. Just got to satellite camps, he was told. Kansas State happened to host a camp at a nearby high school, Willis attended, and soon he was being courted by the Wildcats. They made an offer and Willis accepted, before he had ever played a varsity snap. When other schools sent letter of interests, Willis remained loyal to the Wildcats.
In high school Willis was so quiet that his football teammates never nominated him as captain. Yet the rest of the student body sensed his leadership; they elected him as student body president. “If I’m not playing football, I want to go into coaching,” says Willis. “But if it was a job outside of football, I would go into politics. But I would want to go into local politics, because I would want to actually affect people.”
At Kansas State, Willis thrived in Bill Snyder’s structured program. In December, Willis became the first member of his family to graduate college. Snyder gave seniors the day off, however Willis was torn. His ceremony began exactly at the same time as practice. His parents drove from Kansas City to Manhattan, and Willis made them wait all day. “We were preparing for a bowl game, and it was my last bowl game,” Willis explains. “We had lost the previous two and so this was important to me. Plus, I had got some postseason accolades and I didn’t want to have an award hangover type deal. That’s not who I am.” (Willis did share a celebratory meal with his parents at Chili’s that night.)
The first signal Willis would ascend this draft season came at the Senior Bowl weigh in, when scouts buzzed about his physique. “He’s the guy who has never missed a workout,” says Simoneau. “Never. Not one, not for any reason.” Willis shined in one-on-one drills and in the showcase, earning the South team’s Most Outstanding Player honors with two sacks, two forced fumbles and a pass breakup.
In speaking to Willis, you are struck by his maturity. He has a deep, calm voice that makes him seem far older than 21. He also speaks with a sensibility rare for draft prospects. On why he didn’t feel nervous at the combine: “You know how high you can jump, you know how fast you can run. So just do it.”
On how he sells himself to teams: “I don't tell teams I think I'm the best pass rusher in the draft. I tell them I'm consistent with my pass rush ability, and I have a variety of things that I can do. Of course there are things I can work on, but for the most part I have a knack for affecting the quarterback. I try to explain to people my goal is not to sack the quarterback or even be a great pass rusher. My goal is to affect the quarterback. so if that's getting him off his spot making him float his a little bit, that’s my job.”
1. There won’t be much fallout from Brian Kelly’s comments that DeShone Kizer should still be in college. The Notre Dame coach’s candid assessment—via an interview with Sirius Radio last week—made waves in the media. But as far as the comments affecting Kizer’s draft stock? Yeah, right. Two notes on this: (1) Kelly doubled down on his stance in a press conference with local reporters on Friday, inferring the media took the quote and ran with. His larger point (which he did articulate on in the Sirius interview) was that Kizer still needs time to develop. (2) None of this is new information to NFL scouts. Evaluators have been scrutinizing Kizer since August and privately, they’ve heard this sentiment from Kelly and his staff. It’s unfortunate there’s a perception that the coach is throwing his former player under the bus—and, perhaps, cushioning himself in the case Kizer doesn’t see immediate success—but it’s not going to send Kizer tumbling down draft boards.
2. I try not to draw too many conclusions from private workouts—in many cases, it’s teams doing their due diligence—but this nugget caught my eye: The Bills worked out Mitchell Trubisky in Chapel Hill last week and not only were head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Doug Whaley present, but owner Terry Pegula tagged along as well. Again, private workouts are just another step, albeit a more serious one, on a year-long fact-finding mission. But having an owner board a private plane for three plus hours to personally meet a quarterback? That means the Bills are seriously considering the prospect of selecting Trubisky at No. 10.
3. Pro Days are now over, and in the 16(!) days before the draft, the only bit of official recon remaining are team visits. Each team is allotted 30. Although each team has a different philosophy on who to bring in and why (and it’s still smoke and mirror season), some trends can be inferred. For example, colleague Albert Breer posted the list of prospects the Cowboys brought in last week, and of the 18 names, 17 were defensive players. Another interesting note: The Patriots used one of their 30 visits on Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, one of the best edge defenders in the class. New England, of course, doesn’t pick until the third round at No. 72. This illustrates just how much research each scouting department must conduct, in case there’s movement before draft day (looking at you, Malcolm Butler and Jimmy Garoppolo).
4. The boss, Peter King, had some interesting notes on Christian McCaffrey in his MMQB column on Monday, including this quote from Sean Payton: “He’s got the ability to make people miss, but also to make tough yards in the pile. I’ve got a crystal-clear vision of the player. He’d be like Darren Sproles, Reggie Bush for us, kind of the Joker role. But I think you have to have a pitch count on him.” The last sentence is especially pertinent. Even though McCaffrey adds value as a returner and can split out as a wide, I believe the fact that he’s not a three-down back will prevent him from being selected in the Top 10.
5. Last week The College Column mentioned possibilities for the 2018 draft location (among them: Philadelphia for a second straight year, and Green Bay and Kansas City as hopefuls). According to ESPN’s Field Yates, Dallas has emerged as a favorite to host the 2018 draft. Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones’ thoughts on the matter? Per The Dallas Morning News: “We don’t go away. We’re going to keep right there bidding. Hopefully we got a good shot at this, and we’ll see.”
By virtue of playing for the most talented defense in the country, Ryan Anderson’s name can get lost in draft conversations. In college, Anderson was physical and productive (15 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss over his last two seasons) in multiple roles for the Crimson Tide. However, with unimpressive athletic testing and a classic tweener skillset (many evaluators agree he’d fit well as a 3-4 outside linebacker, though there’s no consensus) Anderson is a likely third- or fourth-round pick. Last week, the Daphne, Alabama native made his first trip to New York City and talked to The MMQB’s Kalyn Kahler.
KK: You are overshadowed in this draft by a couple college teammates. What is that like to not be overlooked with so many top Alabama players in this draft? Anderson: It’s been like that since I got there. I’ve always been the guy who did the dirty work and I always had to work for everything. I’m used to it, and I wasn’t really expecting [the draft] to be any different.
KK: Getting on the field at linebacker for Alabama wasn’t easy, you didn’t start until your senior year. You thought about transferring after two years. Why didn’t you? Anderson: I just felt like I was better than some of the guys playing ahead of me. I felt like I knew the defense just as well if not better than them and I wasn’t getting the opportunity that those guys were getting. So I was frustrated, but my mom, she wouldn’t let me leave. She wouldn’t let me transfer. She told me I wasn’t going to do it, that I was there for a reason and it was all going to work itself out.
KK: What’s your best Saban story? Anderson: We have Thursday practice, our shell day, our lighter day, and a lot of guys were coming out of meetings to the practice field late and he was just going off. I was running down to my side of the walkthrough and I was laughing at him going off on other players and he saw it, so when he saw me, I turned and kept running but I felt him looking at me. I kept saying, don’t look back, don’t look back, and when I looked back, he saw me and just lit into me. He went off on me the entire walkthrough. We do flex, and he fought with me the entire flex, just going off. I was still laughing though. I thought it was funny. That was my redshirt sophomore year.
KK: Was it you who shooed Deshaun Watson out of a Tuscaloosa bar? Explain your side. Does that show how much bad blood there still is between these teams? Anderson: There wasn’t much to it, I was there doing something else. I was getting texts from a lot of people that knew he was there. I told him, “It ain’t smart being here. You haven’t ate yet, it might be best to go somewhere else and eat.” I didn’t even use those words. I just said, “It’s not smart to be here.” That’s all I said and that was it. He was like, “O.K.” That was it. I didn’t say anything else to him. I talked to him the next day, I texted him and we talked about it. I just wanted to let him know that I wasn’t on that type of time.
Is there a lot of ill will for Clemson because that championship loss? There’s always going to be ill will [after losing] a game in Tuscaloosa or anywhere in Alabama. We lost to Auburn one year and we had fans poisoning trees. The year of the “Kick-6,” somebody was at an Iron Bowl party and an Alabama fan shot and killed an Auburn fan. It’s big down there when you lose a game. That’s what I don’t think he understood and that’s what I was trying to tell him. This is all these people got. I don’t feel like he was there picking a fight, he seemed like a good dude.
I’ll be fielding questions every week between now and the draft. If you’d like to send a question to The College Column for next week’s mailbag, tweet @emilymkaplan or email email@example.com.
Jürgen emails: Hi Emily, big fan of your column from Austria. Would like to know what you think of Luke Falk. Where would you rank him in this class? His playing style reminds me a little bit of the way Jimmy G came out from Eastern Illinois. I appreciate the kind feedback, Jürgen. Teams are already well-versed on Falk; there was a chance he would declare in 2017. Falk, by school measurements, has about two inches on Garoppolo at 6' 4″, though he’s lanky. The biggest similarity—besides pass-happy systems at Eastern Illinois and Washington State—is a quick release. Falk might be a tad more poised under pressure at this stage of his career, and he could have a better arm. But you can bet at this time next year we’ll be fielding questions about how Falk will transition to a pro system. If Falk joined the 2017 class, I’d group him with Joshua Dobbs, Brad Kaaya, Nathan Peterman and Davis Webb in the second tier of quarterback prospects. Best guess? Second or third round.
@gfitzgerald18: Best safeties for the Browns, considering they probably need two and the best two will be gone by 12? Gerard, Ireland Hello Gerard from Ireland! You’re right, Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker are likely gone by No. 12. The good news is, it’s a strong class of safeties and the Browns have a ton of draft capital. Should Connecticut’s Obi Melifonwu fall out of the first round, I like his odds of going at No. 33. An athletic wonder, Melifonwu is a dream fit for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ scheme. Marcus Williams of Utah is a solid target for one of Cleveland’s second or third round picks. Florida’s Marcus Maye is versatile and would be a good get in the third or fourth round. As for a mid to late round sleeper? I like John Johnson of Boston College.
Larry emails: If you are the Browns decision maker with the first pick are you worried about Myles Garrett’s sack production within the SEC? At first glance, Garrett’s 32.5 career sacks and 48.5 tackles for loss over three seasons are impressive. But, as you mentioned, only about a third of his sacks (12 of the 32.5) came against SEC competition. In 2016, 4.5 of his 8.5 sacks came in a single game, against Texas San-Antonio. When teams (especially the Browns) have studied Garrett, they have been wowed by his freakish blend of size, speed and athleticism. In gathering information from coaches and trainers at Texas A&M, my understanding is that those evaluators have been reminded that Garrett has absorbed a ton of double-team attention (evident on film) and that he battled through significant injuries this past season. When I broached that topic with Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin last month, he was emphatic: “People take for granted his injury status. A lot of guys would have just shut it down and just not played.” Now would some scouts like to have seen Garrett play a little harder at times on film? Yes. Would a few more sacks against SEC competition help cement his case at No. 1? Of course. But if you’re asking my opinion, I’m in the camp that believes Garrett is a once-in-a-decade type talent and, should he stay healthy and receive the right coaching, should have no problem finding immediate success in the NFL.