There are a lot of people rooting for Austin Willis to make it in the NFL. Now they are hoping he latches on with somebody other than the Oakland Raiders, who cut the undrafted free agent this week.
It has been a long, long time since the Raiders could be considered the gold standard for personnel moves at either the player or coach level, but Silver and Black Pride, an SB Nation blog, writes Willis was having issues getting open as a receiver despite 4.38-second speed in the 40-yard dash. He was also stuck in a crowded field of receivers hoping to make an impact on the Raiders coaching staff, vying for time with guys like Brice Butler, Kenbrell Thompkins, Seth Robers, Kris Durham, Josh Harper and Milton Williams. That was before the Raiders signed veteran Devon Wylie, likely to build on the working relationship Wylie has had with quarterback Derek Carr since the two were teammates at Fresno State.
Willis was also well down on the kick return totem pole, buried behind Trindon Holliday, Taiwan Jones and T.J. Carrie.
The Emporia State graduate caught 128 balls during his Hornet career, finishing with 2,005 career receiving yards. He also scored almost 20 touchdowns, including 10 his junior year.
The cut is a disappointment for Willis, who was heralded as a possible Wes Welker-type player by The Bleacher Report shortly after he signed with Oakland. It’s also disappointing for a lot of fans — not just those of Emporia State football but those of “the little guy,” the guy from the small school who just wants a fair chance to compete against established players or more well-known recruits from bigger schools with brighter, Division I lights.
The good news? Willis apparently turned some heads in a positive way. Several journalists following the Raiders say he should catch on with another NFL team (or at least be given more than a mere passing look) because of his speed, sure hands, improved size — 192 pounds versus his ESU playing weight of around 175 — and his athleticism.
The way it sounds, Willis was a victim of circumstance in Oakland. And the Raiders did him a favor, believe it or not, by cutting him loose from a crowded field of pass catchers now as opposed to later.
Crayton reunites with former coach Higgins at ESU
Meanwhile, receivers now at Emporia State just got a gift from the football gods — from somebody who was once in Willis’ shoes.
Patrick Crayton, a wideout who made a name for himself as an NAIA All-American at Northwestern Oklahoma State under current ESU head coach Garin Higgins, is now joining the Higgins staff as a wide receivers coach.
Crayton is on board at ESU thanks to the NFLPA Coaching Internship, which lets players have what a news release calls “an in-depth, foundational coaching experience.” He’s among less than 20 former players selected for this program this year.
Talk about learning from somebody who knows the football side of things and also the trials and tribulations of impressing the coaches when not from a big-name university. Crayton played eight seasons in the NFL, making most of his headlines during a six-year career with the Dallas Cowboys before ending his playing days with San Diego in 2011. All told, he amassed 3,650 receiving yards and scored 27 touchdowns, including two punt returns for scores.
Before that, however, Crayton pretty much did it all for NWOSU. He played quarterback, wideout and returner, and he still holds several school records. He is the only NAIA player to score a TD as a passer, rusher, receiver, punt returner and kick returner in a single season.
Crayton will definitely give Emporia State receivers a leg up when it comes to X’s and O’s, route-running, blocking and the sheer football side of the equation. But he was also a mentally tough receiver during his career, and that can only help a pretty talented corps of wideouts on a team that needs to show last year’s mental fortitude and concentration issues have ended.
You think Emporia State’s receivers will ignore anything he has to say? Uhhhhhh. No.
Hornets face tough road back to playoffs
Is this a step towards ESU returning to the Division II playoffs like it did two years ago? Perhaps. The Hornets are picked near the middle of the pack in the cutthroat MIAA, but that’s about where they were picked when they had that magical run in 2013.
The season opens against Missouri Southern in Joplin on Sept. 3, and the schedule from there is no picnic. Central Missouri, the media’s No. 3 pick in the conference, is Emporia State’s home opener Sept. 10, followed by Central Oklahoma, the media’s projected No. 4 team, on Sept. 19. After games against Northeastern (Okla.) State and Lindenwood, the Hornets then face a stretch of five straight games against teams slotted to be in the top half of the conference, including Pittsburg State (MIAA No. 2, Oct. 10 at home), archrival Washburn (Halloween Day, only marginally more scary than a Halloween Night game) and Northwest Missouri (MIAA No. 1, Nov. 7).
The Hornets were beset by injuries, notably at quarterback, last year, but it seemed the collarbone break Brent Wilson suffered — his second in as many seasons — bruised the Hornets’ psyche far more deeply than any physical hurt. ESU appeared listless and dispirited, especially after falling behind, and after Wilson’s injury the only game where ESU had any second-half fight was the near-miracle finish in Kearney, Neb., to end the season.
Let’s face it. The Hornets were embarrassed by how last season played out. So this is a pivotal season at Emporia State. The Hornets have to show last year was the aberration, not the prior two seasons that featured a Kanza Bowl win and the team’s first postseason appearance in almost a decade. But this is also a season where postseason really isn’t mandatory for ESU to prove it’s headed again in the right direction. Finishing above .500, especially a 7-4 or 8-3 record, would go a long way towards erasing the nasty taste the Hornets had to deal with at the end of the 2014 season.