Willis setting the edge at the voluntary workouts.
In so many ways third-round right end Jordan Willis is the textbook draft pick in the Duke Tobin-Marvin Lewis Era.
Terrific production (Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year). Oodles of experience (third in Kansas State history with 26 sacks). Great leader (student body president at his Kansas City high school.) Even greater motor (coach Bill Snyder calls him "the epitome of Kansas State football"). Smart (he got his degree in sociology/criminology six days before his last game for State).
Cincinnati Bengals host OTA's at Paul Brown Stadium Practice Fields.
Now a day after his new head coach, Lewis, ripped the NFL for loosening the celebration rules, Willis reveals he truly is a Marv-Paul Brown-guy who prefers to act like he's been there before.
"I'm just a rookie starting my NFL stuff. Who cares what I have to say?" Willis asks this week during the Bengals' first week of on-field work. "But I don't really like the attitude. It's not that the NFL has developed it, but our society has caused some egos and bringing it into sports and I really don't like it. You're going to have an ego, but I think some stuff is just too much. Just make the play and get up and make the next play.
"I don't have anything against guys (that celebrate). Be yourself. But I don't want to get knocked for being me," Willis says. "Some take my soft spokeness for being soft."
The Bengals weren't some of that. They spoke very loudly about how they felt about Willis as they chased pass rushers in last month's draft, a dangerous pursuit since 18 flew off the board in the first two rounds. They talked about him as early as the second round and after they took running back Joe Mixon with that pick they tried to trade back up in the third round to grab Willis and couldn't and mopped their brow with relief when he was still there.
The same thing happened in the next round when they wanted to go up and get Auburn pass rusher Carl Lawson, their top-rated player of the final day of the draft. But they mopped their brow again when they couldn't find a trade partner and still got him.
So the debate forever continues. When to trade and when not to trade. All they know is that Lawson has looked terrific ever since he got here, maybe the best of all the rookies so far, and he just may be better than they thought. Willis has also showed up well, looking exactly like they thought.
"When you watch him on tape you can visualize him becoming a good pro and so far he's shown every bit of it," says defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. "He's everything you want. He never came off the field. He defends the run well. He rushes the passer. He always runs to the ball. We like our young guys."
Jordan Willis: the consummate Tobin-Lewis draft pick.
And they're young. Willis turned 22 on his way to the rookie minicamp and Lawson won't get there until after the June mandatory minicamp. But if you think Willis sounds like he's about 32, you're right. It may be because he's smack in the middle of 10 siblings. His oldest is a brother 32 and his youngest is a brother who's 13.
"Middle child," Willis says. "You learn to do a lot for yourself. I come in and be quiet. That's just the way I am … I'm going to come in and work every day to get better … I'm a little different than other people. I'm not very boisterous or anything like that … I think that's why people sometimes get the wrong idea."
The Bengals think Willis has the right idea because they believe he's certainly no shrinking violet on the field. Like Guenther says, he took every snap he could and in the State locker room he was an overwhelming choice to be captain. He was excused from practice the day he graduated, six days before State's bowl game. But even though he became the first in his family to graduate from college, he still went to the workout. He's got a presence at 6-4, 255 pounds and rocked the NFL scouting combine when he ripped off 4.53 seconds in the 40-yard dash and won the defensive linemen triple crown by also copping the agility drills.
But Guenther wasn't looking at that.
"When it comes to linemen, I don't look at the 40 like other evaluators," Guenther says. "When the quarterback drops back, he goes back a maximum of seven to eight yards. So that means he'd go about 32 or 33 yards past him. I look at the first 10 yards and he had a great first 10."
Try 1.57 seconds. But maybe the biggest numbers are 5 in the morning until about 8 at night, which is when Calvin Willis worked as a detail manager at a Kansas City body shop while his mother stayed home to manage a house that moved around a bit. It was an optimistic upbringing.
"I saw them work every day," Willis says. "We moved around just depending how much money my dad was making. The good thing about me is that I got to go to inner city schools, suburban schools, private schools. I got the whole spectrum of stuff."
Calvin Willis has worked at Rick Hendrick's body shop for 17 years and that's how Jordan became a devout follower of NASCAR. Hendrick is a NASCAR owner and the body shop is separate but it still had an impact on Willis growing up when he followed Hendrick drivers like Jeff Gordon, his favorite before he retired. Willis is a big enough fan so that getting drafted meant being able to get pit passes to the Kansas Speedway a few weeks ago for the NASCAR race. That allowed him to hang out with the crew and his post-Gordon favorite driver Martin Truex Jr.
Willis watches a ton of tape of NFL pass rushers, but he also gets inspired by drivers. He became an even bigger fan of Jimmie Johnson at the Kansas race after watching the driver intros. He also patiently added some NASCAR history for the uninitiated.
"I like the way he carries himself. He's a seven-time NASCAR champion. He's done it all. He's tied with the top two guys in history," Willis says. "I see Jimmie Johnson walking like a normal guy. You see one of the younger drivers who's never won a race and he walks out like he's the seven-time champion. And Jimmie Johnson has done it all, but he's a very humble guy. He knows he's the guy, but he keeps his head about himself."
When it comes to pro defensive ends, Willis watches guys with his body type and/or style. His two are 6-2, 235-pound Cameron Wake and 6-4, 270-pound Robert Quinn.
"They know how to bend around the corner," says Willis, who gets high marks for his leverage. "In no way am I comparing myself to them. I think I'm quicker, but what they do is have a great takeoff. That's something I need to work on and to get more consistent."
But when he does, he'll act like he's been there before.
Cincinnati Bengals rookies visit Ronald McDonald House in Cincinnati, Ohio.