The Prodigy, The Veteran And The Underdog

Trey Hopkins is valued veteran utilityman who can start and come off the bench
Trey Hopkins is valued veteran utilityman who can start and come off the bench

Takari Brooks, who made the trade with Damion Willis in tenth grade and is probably his best friend, saw the news pop off his phone some time Sunday afternoon. He shot off a text to the man replacing wide receiver A.J. Green in the starting lineup for the Bengals in the Sept. 8 opener in Seattle and wondered, "Hey Bro, you didn't tell me this."

"It's not really surprising," Brooks said. "Damion is one of the humblest people I know."

Willis, under recruited out Meridian, Miss., not once, but twice, uninvited to the NFL scouting combine, undrafted by everyone even though the Bengals had a fifth-round grade on him, wasn't even ready to believe it Sunday when the media broke the news to him that head coach Zac Taylor broke at his news conference. After watching Green growing up because their long, lean basketballish body types matched, Willis would be replacing him Opening Day.

"That's all we heard about growing up," Brooks said. "He would talk about A.J. Green. And Brandon Marshall."

Taylor also announced that rookie Michael Jordan is starting the opener at left guard and that Trey Hopkins starts in front of first-rounder Billy Price at center, but those moves aren't exactly stunning underdog stories. Hopkins has started 21 games in the league and he impressed everyone with how he played center in place of Price last season. Price who got off slowly this training camp with an injury, is still going to be a big factor on this club as the line's sixth man.

And Jordan was their left guard of the future the minute they traded up to get him in the fourth round. They had never done that before for a guard and the future just turned out to be Sept. 8 instead of the Sunday after the bye. Reasonable. If you talked to the cool, concise Jordan, weaned on massive crowds and New Year's Day bowls at Ohio State, it's no surprise.

Talk to his teammates and it's really not a surprise, either.

"He's very football smart for a rookie," Hopkins said. "Everyone thinks they are smart coming out of college, but he really sees things rookies normally wouldn't see in a defense and understanding your own offense. Besides that, he just plays physical, plays hard every snap."

OK. Hopkins, the valued vet, and Jordan, the Big Ten prodigy.

But Willis?

"I would have thought that was crazy because I went undrafted. I would've really thought that was crazy," said Willis before Sunday's practice when asked if someone had told him this is how it was going to be six months ago. "It's very good news. It's something I've been driven by my whole life, to play in the league. The only goal I was focusing on right now was making the 53-man roster. And then the next goal is to be getting actual playing time. So when I just found that out, I'm really happy. Really blessed."

So, it turns out Willis not only shares Green's body type, but his low-profile humility. Sure, he's still got the clip of his one-handed catch on his phone from last year, the one that made Randy Moss' "You've Been Mossed," feature. But he doesn't say very much, a' la Green.

Truth be told, a big reason Willis chose the Bengals after the draft, along with the $15,000 signing bonus and hitting it off with the coaches during a pre-draft visit to Paul Brown Stadium, is he could watch Green at work.

"I haven't told him that," said Willis a few weeks ago about telling Green he watched him growing up.

That day Willis and Brooks were sophomores, they were throwing a football around while Southeast Lauderdale High School football and basketball coach Centel Truman watched. Willis had just racked up a 1,000-yard season playing wide receiver and he loved it, but he was worried they were going to switch him back to quarterback. Willis asked his buddy to go out for football and be his quarterback. But Brooks, a point guard in basketball, would love throwing the ball to his buddy posting up in the paint.

"Only if you come out for basketball," Brooks said and the deal was done. Willis had two more 1,000-yard seasons, they won a play-off game senior year and he became the second player to have his jersey retired. In basketball, Brooks fed him enough that Willis averaged 20 points per game, beat teams they hadn't in a while and was named MVP of the section.

"We'd start off every (basketball) game, I'd give him an alley-oop and he'd dunk it," Brooks said.

Brooks, who went to Northeast Mississippi Community College while Willis went to East Mississippi CC, can't understand why barely no one came recruiting. His buddy had his heart set on Ole Miss and they came down to watch him, but no offer. The University of Cincinnati pulled his visit when Kahlil Lewis out of Miami, Fla., committed. Two small Louisiana schools and Troy. That was it.

"I don't know why," said Brooks, a machine operator for Georgia Pacific. "He always saved me. Whenever I needed to make a throw, I'd just look for him. He'd catch everything."

That's what he's done here. That's kind of how his 33-yard grab over Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins on Thursday night unfolded from the snap to quarterback Ryan Finley.

"He's a guy that just started showing up. 'Who's that guy? Who's that guy?'" Taylor said. "All of the undrafted receivers have done a good job. All three of them. It's the best group, in that sense, that I've ever been around. (Willis) has gone one notch above. He makes plays. In the game, we told Finley, 'Hey, if he gets a one-on-one off the double move, just throw it up.' You saw what happened. That was a good cornerback, and we just threw it up and (Willis) made the play as you'd expect him to. He's gained that level of trust from us."

So on the day Willis was named the starter, veteran wide receiver John Ross practiced for the first time in training camp after severely injuring his hamstring getting ready. Taylor and wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell think he can get himself primed in two weeks. Willis could use a running mate.

"He's taken a ton of mental reps. John is a guy that works really hard at learning and trying to watch everything and making sure he stays into it," Bicknell said after practice. "We just need a little bit of luck and his ability to stay healthy right now. It's not easy. These guys run a lot and they make a lot of hard movements, and because of his speed and because of his change of direction he probably makes more than anybody. We just have to learn to keep him healthy, but he's ready to go as soon as he can run.

"I thought he looked good. He probably got a little more than they had told me, but probably got 8-10 reps. He knew where to go. He looked good. He looked like he was running normal."

Ross is also a believer when it comes to Willis. Like Brooks, Ross wonders how he slid so far under the radar.

"He's amazing. You guys can see it. I told him, I haven't seen anyone as talented as you with no buzz in a long time. I just told him you keep working. I told him that the first week," Ross said. "I think his game has no limits. Complete game. That's what makes him special. And he catches the ball really well. He makes tough catches, he's smart, the kid can play. I told him, just keep that mentality and you're going to be really good because I don't think a lot of people are blessed with the things that he has."

Willis dabbled with the idea of becoming a civil engineer, but when Troy didn't have the program, he opted to get his degree in sports broadcasting. He's got it, but he's making no announcements on air. He says even though the news is out there that he's starting the opener and he's not playing in Thursday's pre-season finale (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Luckless Colts at Paul Brown Stadium, he's not texting anybody with the scoop until Saturday's final cut to 53.

"I don't think he needs to be as worried about (cut-down day) as he might think," Taylor said. "It's good for those guys to think that nothing is guaranteed. He needs to have that mindset. He hasn't made it."

His buddy says that won't be a problem.

"He always talked about making it," said Brooks, who found out the hard way. "We were always going over to (the high school field) and working. On Sundays I'd get out of church at 1 and he'd say, 'Meet me at the field at two," and we'd throw. He's always wanted to do this."