Helmets off to Austin Willis, the former Emporia State wideout who is on an NFL team. How good does it feel to say that?
Willis, who scampered by defensive backs routinely for touchdowns and big plays the final three years of his career at ESU, was offered a deal by the Oakland Raiders over the weekend. Sub-4.4 speed helped to gain the Riders coaching staff’s attention, but Willis also must have demonstrated an acuity for picking up on things quickly for them to maintain interest.
After spot duty on special teams his freshman year, Willis gradually added playing time and by his junior year he couldn’t be rooted out of the starting lineup, catching 10 touchdown passes as a junior and accumulating over 2,000 receiving yards in his career.
Numbers like that would get instant notice if Willis was in a Division I Power 5 conference. Even though Willis played in the toughest football conference in Division II, his name wasn’t mentioned all that much — if at all — leading up to the NFL Draft.
Such is life if you play football in any other level than D-I.
On KVOE’s Morning Show earlier this week, Ron Thomas made a great point in that technology now has made it much easier for scouts to unearth talent. I wouldn’t go so far as to say things are tilting in favor of D-II athletes, however. Even with the stated goal of trying to find talent everywhere, there is a reason NFL rosters are so heavily stacked with D-1 players. It’s the best college competition and players have proven themselves at what is basically a minor league football level. So it makes sense to keep the attention on D-1, often — and unfortunately — at the expense of D-II players or other levels who just need a chance to show they can measure up.
Willis got his chance. And he measured up.
Besides being a big win for Willis, this is also a major recruiting coup for ESU. The Hornets now have had several players get more than a cursory look by NFL teams since Garin Higgins became coach, like Chris Poston and Adam Schiltz, who has been with Tennessee TItans’ and the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad during his career. It’s not being part of the 45-man roster, but at least the dream is still viable without going to Canada or Europe to play. If Willis can stick with the Raiders, Emporia State stands to benefit as impressionable teenagers look for a place to play college football.
Can Willis capture some of the magic that kept Rod Smith of Missouri Southern as one of the NFL’s elite receivers and that’s propelling John Brown, a Pittsburg State wideout, to stardom? Perhaps. There’s nothing he can do about his size, so he will have to be a precise route-runner, possess soft hands and a spongy brain, and make himself versatile — likely special teams — to make it hard for the Raiders to cut ties. Austin Willis has made it this far because of those qualities, and a door has opened as a result. He’s poised to walk through to stardom if everything works out in his favor.