Austin Willis is wearing shorts, sneakers and a windbreaker jacket – the Emporia State logo over his heart offering a hint of his identity – while waiting in the lobby of an IHOP restaurant in Emporia, Kan.
He rises and smiles upon greetings, extending a warm handshake before a hostess leads a party of two to the privacy of a booth.
The 5-9, 175-pound Willis is an inch shy of an average man’s height, and possesses a quiet and unassuming personality. A quick glance around the restaurant to compare Willis to other patrons reflects the NFL draft prospect arguably wouldn’t stand out in a crowd to those not knowing him.
Place Willis on a football field, however, and the former walk-on Emporia State wide receiver proves difficult to ignore, even for the nonbelieving.
“People doubt me all the time,” Willis said. “People don’t want to take a chance on me. It’s kind of been the story coming out of high school and college, nobody really wanted to take a chance on me. So I’m hoping coming out of college to the pros, somebody is willing to take a chance on me.”
Willis, a native of Topeka, Kan., may not have to worry despite missing out on a postseason all-star game and the NFL Scouting Combine if his two Pro Day workouts are an indication.
He made up for those absences by posting 4.38 and 4.39 40-yard dash times at Emporia State’s Pro Day on March 11 in front of the Kansas City Chiefs, the only team in attendance. Both 40 times project in the top five performances among wide receivers at the Combine.
Willis produced a 39 1/2-inch vertical jump, which projects as sixth-best among wide receivers at the Combine, and 21 bench-press repetitions, marking the second-most at his position in Indianapolis. Willis also posted a 10-foot-5 broad jump, a 4.38 in the 5-10-5 Short Shuttle drill and a 7.12 in the 3-cone drill.
The performance apparently intrigued other teams, resulting in an invitation for Willis to attend the Kansas Pro Day in Lawrence on March 25.
He then proceeded to duplicate his Emporia State Pro Day numbers in front of Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard, area scout Terry Delp and scouting intern Xavier Adibi, all of whom were observed at the Kansas workout.
“I knew there would be that, ‘Can he do it again? Can he put up the same numbers, be consistent and catch all the balls?’” Willis said. “I wanted to prove that I could do that again. That was huge and I really appreciate them letting me come in there and do that.”
Willis also had a bigger audience when considering Kansas’ Pro Day had representatives from the Seattle Seahawks, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers, Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears, St. Louis Rams and Washington.
While Willis wasn’t provided his 40-yard dash results, a gesture from a scout and player reactions provided the information he needed.
“When the scout turned around and gave me the thumbs up, that was kind of cool,” Willis said. “I walked back and the players were like, ‘Dude, you must have run fast because when you ran by, they were all like (moves his head quickly to the right and left, and down to a cupped hand to imitate scouts looking at each other and their stopwatches).”
Willis didn’t stop impressing NFL personnel after the timed events.
He commanded attention during receiving drills, running a mixture of fly, post, slant, curl, comeback, out and whip routes, where he caught the ball cleanly and didn’t drop a single pass.
Making Willis’ performance even more noteworthy was it marked the first time he worked with former Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps.
Willis admits to apprehension entering the workout knowing there wasn’t a pre-existing relationship with Heaps, but the two connected while warming up.
“Obviously, the quarterback-receiver relationship is important,” Willis said. “You’ve never thrown with someone before, so you don’t know what their arm speed is going to be like. It went through my head a little bit, but I got to play catch with him a little bit beforehand and he’s a good guy. He helped me out a lot. He didn’t throw any bad balls. It was like (Emporia State quarterback) Brent Wilson threw it to me.”
The focus on Willis was evident from where reporters were stationed during the workout. Numerous scouts across the field were observed nodding heads in approval or taking notes after each of his catches.
Willis said he spent time with the Chiefs, Rams, Texans, Titans, Bears and Washington, among other teams, immediately after his workout.
His performance also impressed Chiefs tight end Adam Schiltz, Willis’ former teammate at Emporia State.
Schiltz said during a telephone interview he read about the Pro Day results and sent Willis a congratulatory text message for making an impression.
“I knew he would run fast, I knew he would do that,” Schiltz said. “He couldn’t just run fast because he had to do all the other things he did to get noticed. He did all those things.”
Willis arrived at Emporia State on a track scholarship out of Shawnee Heights High School before focusing solely on football during the final years of college.
The former All-State 5A high school defensive back made a permanent switch to wide receiver his freshman year, and exploded on the scene during his junior season. Willis recorded 911 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns on 45 catches in nine games in 2013 despite missing two contests with an ankle injury.
His high school background on defense offered an edge.
“Coming to college and being able to play receiver after playing defense for so long – I played in high school – but it helps give you some insight on what the defender is thinking when you’re running a route,” Willis said, “how you’re going to run this route to kind of trick him. That definitely plays a role.”
Willis was on pace to shatter the junior season numbers through the first five games of his senior year, totaling 545 yards and six touchdowns on 29 receptions, before starting quarterback Brent Wilson suffered a collarbone injury.
The loss of Wilson affected the Hornets’ passing game and the chemistry Willis enjoyed with the quarterback.
“I always use the one play from Northeastern State this year when we played down there in Oklahoma,” Willis said. “Brent and I had a ridiculous connection. I was supposed to run a comeback and we ended up just converting it. He knew I wasn’t running a comeback; that was just kind of the thing we had.”
After a promising start to the 2014 campaign, Willis totaled 212 yards receiving on 27 catches the rest of the way with Hornets backup quarterbacks Ty Reasnor and Braxton Marstall.
Willis finished the year with 757 yards receiving and six touchdowns on 56 catches in 11 games.
While he won’t use the revolving door at quarterback the past season as an excuse for the decline in production, Willis hopes NFL teams view the whole picture.
“I consider Brent Wilson one of the best quarterbacks in Division II,” Willis said. “When I had one of the best quarterbacks throwing me the ball, I was successful. I made it work with the other two. I’m hoping people see that.”
Emporia State head football coach Garin Higgins acknowledged during a telephone interview Willis’ statistics declined with the backup quarterbacks.
But Higgins said Willis handled it well, calling him a “professional” and “class act” in the face of the adversity.
“I could see it in his face he wanted to make plays,” Higgins said. “The timing was off a couple of times last year when he was open and we missed him, but he never by body language gave any indication. I know he’s competitive inside, but he would go up to those younger quarterbacks and really helped them along. I think it helped those guys to get better through the course of the year.”
More importantly, Higgins said he appreciated how Willis didn’t sulk or allow personal goals get in the way of the team.
“It was really hard for him last year as it was for all us coming off two really productive years and struggling like we did last year,” Higgins said, “but I could not be more proud at just how he handled himself. We talk about the foundation and bricks of our program, and he’s definitely one of those guys where we’re at within our program, he’s a guy that’s been an inspiration and is really how we want our guys to be.”
There is a longstanding sports cliché that speed can’t be taught, and Willis has plenty of it.
“He’s fast,” Schiltz said. “You can’t explain it; he’s just super-fast. The guy just has it. There are very few that have that speed, and when they have it, they have it.”
The 23-year-old Willis said his 40-yard dash times at both Pro Day workouts proved a primary discussion point with scouts, and not his size.
“If more than anything, everybody was blown away by my speed,” he said. “I was kind of surprised somebody came up to me after I did the bench reps and talked to me. That’s not something that’s really relevant to a receiver, but my speed is something that really catches people’s eye. At the next level, that’s a big part of it, is being fast.”
Emporia State’s head football coach said Willis’ ability to get by defenders was a constant subject among the coaching staff.
Higgins adds it wasn’t uncommon to see a cornerback find out the hard way just how fast Willis truly is on the field.
“You don’t think he’s going to be that fast until it actually happens,” Higgins said. “I’ve seen it happen numerous times. Those defensive backs, they think, ‘I’m going to be able to D this guy up.’ Even in the playoff game (2013) when he had a high ankle sprain, he comes out gimping and he runs right by the corner. He got that big play on them and they began to adjust. That was something we always kind of joked about as a staff.”
Higgins and Schiltz, of course, could be viewed as biased when considering the close ties to Willis.
But a former high-profile MIAA defensive back out of Lindenwood provides balance.
Browns cornerback Pierre Desir, a fourth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, knows Willis’ abilities from when Emporia State played the Lions in 2013.
“When I was going against him, it caught me by surprise at first,” Desir said during a telephone interview. “But I knew what he was capable of once I saw him on film running past defenders. Once I got acquainted to it, I just had to adjust because sometimes the film doesn’t do justice when you’re watching and when you’re actually out there. You kind of see that he was the real deal.”
Willis recalls a specific play during that game when he found himself against Desir on a pass into the end zone with the Hornets knocking on the door at the Lions’ 20-yard line.
Emporia State enjoyed success with the deep ball heading into the game, but Willis said the offense didn’t go after Desir often until that moment.
The 6-2, 206-pound Desir made the Hornets pay by picking off the pass.
“I got past him and I thought, ‘I’m going to catch a touchdown on Pierre Desir,’” Willis said with a chuckle. “He’s a tall guy, he’s big. He came out of nowhere, he outreached me a little bit. He was there. It was frustrating because we didn’t go at him much that day. I felt like I had him beat, so it was frustrating. I was very upset.”
When told of Willis’ disappointment on not scoring against him, Desir said he vividly recalls the moment and for good reason.
“I had that play on my highlights,” Desir said with a laugh. “I remember that play like it was yesterday. He did a little double move and it was a deep ball. Actually, I thought I got a pass interference on him. It was a good competition. It could’ve gone either way. He’s a great competitor and it was fun going against him.”
Schiltz, Desir, Cardinals wide receiver John Brown, Titans tight end Delanie Walker, Ravens defensive end Brandon Williams, Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein, 49ers linebacker Michael Wilhoite, Bears linebacker David Bass and Washington running back Michael Hill are among former MIAA players currently in the NFL.
“That shows that people in our league belong at the next level with everyone else,” Willis said. “That’s something people told me a lot. The competition level is there. We belong, I mean, obviously there’s not as many of us, but that would be huge to follow in their footsteps.”
Desir said the journey for Division II players is hard, but far from impossible.
The advice he offers to players from a small school is to impress just one team, and Willis has support from a former opponent.
“I root for every single small-school guy to get the opportunity and they just got to make sure they capitalize on it,” Desir said. “I’ll be rooting for him, so hopefully he gets his chance. I know he’ll get the opportunity, just got to make sure to capitalize.”
Part of taking advantage of a chance to make an NFL roster means a willingness to contribute wherever needed.
And Willis knows he will be called upon to contribute on special teams as a fourth or fifth wide receiver, a challenge he accepts as a returner or gunner.
“I made my money on special teams coming up from my freshman year to now,” Willis said. “My sophomore year, I really contributed, led the team in tackles on special teams and I wasn’t always the gunner. Sometimes I’d be the safety guy. Coach knew I could tackle. He knew nobody was getting by me.”
Higgins said Willis will have to improve on tackling at the next level, but he didn’t have any doubt his former star wide receiver would have a problem learning and adjusting based on Willis’ hard work ethic.
The head coach said he also ensured visiting NFL scouts throughout the season knew of Willis’ contributions on special teams.
“That was one thing I told the scouts when they came in here,” Higgins said. “We didn’t play him on many special teams last year unless it was a last minute situation, but his sophomore and junior year, by far, hands down the best special teams player as far as covering.”
The transition from former college football player to a draft prospect is new to Willis, who didn’t sign with agent Justin Turner until after the Kansas Pro Day.
Willis said his decision to sign with Turner Sports Management had a lot to do with the comfort level he felt with the agency.
And it didn’t hurt Turner represents Cowboys wide receiver Cole Beasley, who is comparable to Willis.
“He’s the same size, fast guy, obviously they know how to get guys like this noticed,” Willis said. “That’s huge. I needed somebody that’s going to work for me, he (Turner) seemed very interested in me, and I just felt comfortable talking to him. He seemed like somebody I could trust.”
Willis said he stayed in touch with Schiltz before signing with Turner, and relied on his former teammate for advice on navigating through the draft process.
Schiltz was more than willing to offer a helping hand based on his experiences.
“I just told him that he needs to focus on himself and do what he can control,” Schiltz said, “because if he can push himself and work hard, and do the things he needs to do, then once he does that, everything will fall in place. It’s all going to happen because God has blessed him with the ability to run fast, he’s super strong, he had great Pro Day numbers. And he’s a great person, great guy. I was with him for three years and I know him very well.”
A printout of a quote attributed to Houston’s All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt is pinned to the bulletin board inside the Emporia State locker room, the following words bolded for emphasis: “Right now, I am a football player and I will sacrifice whatever is necessary to be the best.”
Willis takes the words to heart and used it as motivation throughout his college playing career to pursue a childhood dream.
“There’s a reason I have the talents that I have and it would be a waste if I didn’t take full advantage of what I’ve been given,” Willis said. “I don’t want to waste my ability doing something that I don’t like to do or not doing it at all.”
Willis’ days of being overlooked effectively ended after Gil Brandt of NFL.com wrote a brief recap of the Emporia State workout.
While proud of the sudden attention on Willis, his parents, Scott and Lisa, always knew what the rest of the NFL community is discovering.
“It’s kind of funny to us that everybody is going, ‘Hey, this guy is out of nowhere,’” Scott, a former college safety at Fort Scott Community College, said during a telephone interview. “Nobody has ever seen him do any of this stuff, and he’s just doing what he’s done. He’s always been strong, he’s always been fast, and he’s always been athletic. In the right situation with the right people, he can excel.”
Still, Willis apparently remains under the radar with some NFL Draft analysts.
Three analysts declined to go on record for this article based on not viewing Willis’ game film, while others didn’t return emails, phone calls or text message requesting an opinion on the former Hornet.
NFL scouts and team personnel, however, are aware of Willis following the Kansas workout.
And the opinion from that group of decision makers matters the most.
“(Bears associate director of pro personnel) Dwayne Joseph, he made me remember his name that day,” Willis said. “There were several others. It was interesting to see how many people came up and talked to me after that day. Being somebody who has been overlooked this whole time, and then getting recognition, I’ve been this way the whole time.”
Nevertheless, Willis knows some teams will continue to have doubts, which affects whether he hears his name called during the NFL Draft or points him to the undrafted free agency route.
But he understands not being drafted won’t signal the end.
“Obviously, you know a lot of people tell me that’s not going happen, so it’s kind of a frustrating topic,” Willis said of the draft. “There’s a positive to each side of it. If I don’t get drafted, you kind of get to choose and that’s not a bad deal, especially for somebody like me, somebody that in other people’s eyes needs to fit in where he’s needed, not where people want him.”
The draft process became a moving subject for Scott Willis when asked what it would be like to potentially see his son in an NFL camp in the coming months.
A long pause followed, the voice on the other end of the telephone noticeably cracking with raw emotion on every word, the immense pride shining through with the response.
“That’s a tough one,” Scott said. “I don’t know, it will be like a dream for me, too. I dreamed of being a football player for longer than I did, a lot of us did dream of being in the NFL just like him. That’s one in a million, which is kind of crazy to think about.”
Lisa Willis said during a telephone interview she and her husband attended every game when Austin and his younger brother Tyler, who currently wrestles at Midland University in Nebraska, grew up.
Lisa said it was always important to show support and do things as a family, but watching her older son undergo this current journey has been special.
“It’s just kind of a surreal situation,” Willis’ mother said. “I don’t ever count my eggs until they’re hatched, so I still don’t know what will happen. Whatever it is, I know that we’ve always encouraged the boys to do their best and to follow their dream, to work toward their dream. If it works out, that’s awesome, and if it doesn’t, he’ll be successful at whatever he chooses to do.”
Willis, who graduates in May with a degree in health promotion, remains at Emporia State to train and prepare for whatever comes his way at the end of April.
He knows there is no control over how NFL teams ultimately view him, but Willis hopes his body of work is enough to draw interest to have him on a roster.
“I’m hoping somebody is willing to take a chance,” Willis said. “And even if I’m not drafted – it’s not that I won’t be upset because it’s the goal to get drafted – but it’s also just as important to make it. You get to camp and you do the right things, take care of business, it will happen for you.”