Junior-college cornerback Willis making immediate impact at UK

jsmith3@herald-leader.comOctober 19, 2013 

Alabama Kentucky Football

Kentucky cornerback Nate Willis, left, and Raymond Sanders celebrated an Alabama turnover last fall. Willis is expected to miss three to four months of training to recover from sports hernia surgery. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said Willis is expected to be back in time for the start of the 2014 season.

TIMOTHY D. EASLEY — Associated Press

Nate Willis always wanted the ball in his hands.

Not the oblong-shaped one with the laces that opposing quarterbacks are trying desperately to keep out of the Kentucky cornerback's hands.

He preferred the deep orange one and the striking sound it made as it hit the hardwood floor.

"I just loved basketball," Willis explained recently. "The crowd's right there, everybody can see you out on the floor and I was the type of person I wanted the ball in my hands with a couple seconds left."

Willis' older brother, Daniel, was the football guy.

Nate Willis preferred basketball and even baseball, but his coach's death in the seventh-grade took some of the joy away from that sport.

He'd still play football with friends in his free time, but just for fun. Willis played his ninth-grade season at Glades Central High School in Florida, but basketball was his passion.

"On the basketball court, I turn into a whole different animal," Willis explained. "When I've got the ball in my hand, I feel like nobody can stop me."

The thing that ultimately stopped Willis was his 6-foot, 180-pound frame.

"I'm like 6-foot, so it was going to be hard for me to make it to the pros," Willis said. "Felt like football gave me the best chance to maybe become a professional, I'm pretty tall for a corner."

Problem is, he never played corner, not until he arrived at Arizona Western College, a junior college thousands of miles away from home.

He picked it up pretty quick.

In Willis' freshman season, he had 31 tackles, one for a loss, one forced fumble and three interceptions.

"I wasn't starting when I first got there, I was really like the fifth-string corner, then around the first game, I started as a true freshman," Willis said. "I hadn't really played football in three years. But I was working hard at it and I knew the game."

Rated the No. 3 junior college cornerback in the nation by 247Sports.com, Willis caught the eye of Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops as the Cats searched for depth and size in the secondary.

"Really, just looked at the junior college tape and was pleased with what he's done there and thought he had some upside," Stoops explained.

"We were in dire need for some junior college players in the secondary and we were able to go out and find him and I've been impressed with Nate. I think he's going to be a very good player."

So the self-proclaimed "jokester" from the middle of Florida ended up in Kentucky by way of the Arizona desert. It took Willis nearly the entire summer to complete his courses to become eligible, so he got a late start arriving at UK.

But he seems to have caught on pretty quickly.

Willis, with three seasons of cornerback experience, is now UK's third-leading tackler with 30, including two for a loss and three pass breakups.

"He's really just getting his feet on the ground right now and you're starting to see that," Stoops said. "You're starting to see him play more confidently, get in better shape, getting his legs up underneath him."

The UK corner said he's trying to get better a little bit each day, but it's been a lot like taking a graduate-level course in cornerback.

"I was really mentally out of it when I got here," he said. "But I had to stand up and start competing. If you don't, coaches see that and they'll get on you about that."

Willis learned early on that he can't take plays off.

"Some days, if you're feeling tired or a little lazy, Coach gets on you," he said. "Coach Stoops doesn't like that."

Willis is working on his "mental approach and I feel like I've still got to get bigger to get to the next level."

Cats cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said Willis has gotten more consistent the longer he's been on campus.

"He's getting a better grasp of the defense, understanding where he fits in the big puzzle," Ansley said. "He's competing better. ... He can do a lot better and we've got to demand he does a lot better. The biggest difference is mentally he's understanding where he fits more than when he got here."

It's been a challenge learning a new system and getting used to the speed in the Southeastern Conference, Willis said. Off the field, he's still figuring things out, too.

Two weeks ago, media wanting to talk to the junior had to wait a long time while he did punishment drills after practice.

What were those for exactly?

Willis flashed a wide smile.

"Let's just say, I've got some issues with time management," he said. "That's the biggest thing. My junior college, there were lots of breaks and down time. Here, everything is steady rolling: class, practice, meetings, tutors."

But he's catching on.

It's sort of been the story of his football life: catching on quick.

"He's real smooth," Stoops said. "He's a real smooth guy and good cover guy. Now that he has picked up the plays and stuff you can see like improvements in him."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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