Patience can truly be a virtue in life — and, when it comes to the sports world, it can be non-existent. However, when you examine the collegiate career of Miami Hurricanes’ defensive tackle Gerald Willis III, patience and understanding have paid off in the form of an All-American caliber season. On a defense loaded with stars, holdovers and pre-season All-ACC talent, it’s the redshirt senior that has surged to the front of the pack and whose play has been emblematic of an attacking Hurricanes’ defense in 2018.
With any success story, there’s usually a tale of challenges overcome. That’s certainly the case with Willis, who teetered on a cliff where the drop would likely end his career — despite his having the talent to be the best at the position. Call the tale of of Gerald Willis III a coming of age story, if you will. Whatever you define his story as, the ending has certainly been successful.
Before the U
Sports were a big part of Willis’ childhood. He would often play with his older brother — Landon Collins, current safety with the New York Giants — in their New Orleans home where the brothers grew up with their younger sister. Sports were the ideal outlet for the kids, especially in an area that grew accustomed to violence. Willis has observed members of his community and family murdered during his childhood. The most significant of which was viewing the bullet-riddled body of his 19-year old cousin. Willis opted for a life on the field as opposed to one in a gang and the perils that come with street life.
A star DT at Edna Karr High School, Willis was integral in helping his school capture a state championship in 2012. After being named a LSWA All-State member multiple times, as well as winning the Defensive Player of the Conference award three times, it’s safe to say that Willis was ‘the man’ in the State of Louisiana. Earning an invite to Nike’s The Opening camp and the Under Armour All-American game, Willis was a highly sought-after recruit by some of the bigger programs in the nation. With offers from all the power players of the sport — from Alabama to USC to Miami — there was plenty of speculation that LSU would be the favorite to land the four-star prospect. After seeing his brother chose Alabama over the local Tigers a couple years before, it appeared that Willis was under similar pressure to remain at home. Down to LSU and Florida, Willis made his decision.
Yep, Willis decided to take his talents to Gainesville, Florida, instead of Baton Rouge. Can anyone really blame the reaction of a mother who just heard their son wants to go to UF willingly? Regardless, Willis enrolled with the Gators, bolstering the defensive line.
On the field, Willis was as advertised. The freshman put together a 14 tackle, one forced fumble and one recovered fumble performance in his first year with the Gators. While Willis was a problem for opponents on the field, he became one away from it for UF. During the season, he got into a dispute with Gators’ QB Skylar Mornhigweg that resulted in Willis delivering some harsh justice to the face of the quarterback. Not helping matters was a shove on the sideline when FSU QB Jameis Winston ran out of bounds on play, which caused him to be ejected from the game. In his first season, it soon became apparent that staying in Gainesville was untenable.
When you watch Willis, it becomes 4K clear that he’s a man who plays with a passion on any given snap. However, as he came to learn, sometimes that passion can be a weakness when not kept in check.
“If something pisses him off, he doesn’t know how to deal with it. You keep egging him on, it’s going to turn into something. Just like the cleat situation at Florida. Gerald didn’t start it, but he sure finished it.”
— April Justin, Gerald Willis III’s mother, VIA Manny Navarro of The Athletic
After just a single season, Willis decided to part ways with the Gators, re-opening his recruitment once again. With an assist from former Hurricane TE Standish Dobard, who advocated on the behalf of the DT, Willis decided to take his talent to Coral Gables.
Life as a Cane
After sitting out the entire 2015 season, Willis was ready to show the nation what he could do in 2016. Now a redshirt sophomore, the defensive tackle found himself in rotation with the likes of Kendrick Norton, RJ McIntosh and Courtel Jenkins. Despite the Canes’ depth at the position, Willis showcased why he was a huge get for UM. In his first season with the Canes, Willis tallied 19 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks in nine games. So much for being rusty from sitting out the year before. Keeping in mind that Willis tore his MCL, which required surgery to repair. This only endeared Willis further to the program.
With the Hurricanes changing from head coach Al Golden to Mark Richt, along with ending their bowl win drought, the future seemed bright for not only the program, but the defensive tackle as well. However, before the season commenced, Willis’ was already declared over before even taking the field. Having been suspended a couple times previous, it initially appeared that Willis was falling back into old habits. Instead, he was dealing with personal issues as well as some academic concerns.
Willis wisely stepped back to correct course. He would later rejoin the team, working on special teams as the Hurricanes surged through the 2017 schedule. Meanwhile, reports came out that Willis III was becoming an issue — in a good sense. He excelled on scout teams that Canes’ offensive starters were having trouble getting a handle on most of the season. Even though Willis did not suit up with Miami during their run in ‘17, his impact was still felt on the roster.
In 2018, now a redshirt senior, Willis had the chance that he had probably envisioned since his first started his football journey. Projected as a starter at DT, Willis III was not only ready to contribute in his final year at UM — he was also ready to lead.
Willis assumed No. 9 on defense, as well as leader among a talented defensive line. When you describe what Gerald Willis III’s value to this offense has been, it’s nothing short of incredible. Looking like a man amongst children, the DT surges off the line with purpose of punishing the opposition. It’s a total team effort, with many coaches and players deserving credit for the making the defense hum as it has throughout the season, but you’ll have a difficult time thinking of another player who jumps off the film quite like the man that teammates refer to as ‘G’.
“The last four years have, it’s been like being locked in a cage [...] It’s just been tough really. Everybody that I looked up to and people I played with when I was growing up — Leonard Fournette, Landon, Speedy (Noil) — they’re balling in the league now. It’s been a sad part of my life, but it’s my time now. That’s why I’m not taking anything for granted.”
— Via Manny Navarro of The Athletic
Enjoying his freedom, Willis seems to have put it all together in his final season with the Hurricanes. It’s more than just his 17 TFL, 55 tackles, three sacks and five QB pressures this season. It’s not even that Willis was named a Mid-Season All American by ESPN. Willis is set to become the first player in his family to graduate with a degree next month. While a true student-athlete is thought to be an oxymoron, Willis is a living example that it’s possible. Gerald Willis is a success story that could have gone the other way, yet didn’t because of faith, dedication and a wonderful support system.
The man called G is a beast — but even better, he’s a person that all Canes fans should be glad to say attended the U. He upholds a standard of play that is reminiscent of the greats that came before him. Today we offer our appreciation to Gerald Willis III.
Salute to G!