If following the draft closely, it’s almost become a cliché of saying the 2019 NFL Draft class is headlined by defensive linemen. With a legitimate possibility that half of the first round picks will feature defensive line selections, edge rushers included, it will be interesting to see how organizations assess the remainder of the draft.
The defensive line class is talented and deep. A name that gets lost in the mix has recently been invited to the Reese’s Senior Bowl in January. Miami defensive tackle Gerald Willis III has been a dominant force for the Hurricanes this season and with more devoted attention in Mobile (assuming he accepts), he has a shot to receive first round buzz if he isn’t being surrounded by it already.
With one game remaining on the regular season schedule (No. 24 Pittsburgh), Willis has racked up 17 tackles for loss with three of those being sacks.
Willis thrives off the snap with elite initial quickness to instantly frustrate the blocker. He leans forward with a head of steam with violent punches and quick upper body movements. Though effective with his first movements, he shows a theme of habitually rising his pads when contact is initiated. This flaw mostly occurs when fatigue sets in the second half.
The senior interior lineman loves to use a club over move. He exercises this move with near impeccable quickness and power in his underneath arm. He consistently shows appropriate pad level and hand placement throughout with enough balance to get through traffic and keep his feet to the pocket.
Willis affects the pocket as a pass rusher showing the interior quickness to overwhelm offensive linemen. His combination of quickness and finesse to break off blocks creates plenty of opportunities to fluster passing and running lanes. Willis shows the ability to convert power to speed with instances of coming off his initial move and chasing down the ball carrier from the backside.
At 300 pounds, Willis boasts attractive acceleration. He eats up plenty of turf in only seconds and has enough flexibility in his lower body to unlock his hips and play the ball. Physically, Willis checks plenty of boxes with a strong upper and lower body (powerful leg drive), creativity as an interior disruptor (club over, rip through, swim) and the foot speed to threaten both areas of the game.
Though showing plenty of promise with his physical skills, Willis’ prowess will fade at times when facing a hard-nosed physical front. Willis struggled to accentuate any of his skills against Boston College’s offensive line. Even when exploding off the snap, he would get stagnated on contact and his pad level would rise, ultimately eliminating him from affecting the outcome of the play. Willis has the lower body strength and leverage control to win in a phone booth, but his inconsistencies of body technique quickly throw out any advantage he possesses.
Outside of his physical makeup and on-field talent, Willis has overcome quite a bit before his senior season. After being dismissed from the University of Florida for a list of issues both on and off the field, Willis found his way back on the football field in Coral Gables. However, his transgressions did not stop there. Willis, once again, was suspended multiple times at Miami when arriving in 2015. According to the Miami Herald, Willis became aware of his anger management issues and decided to leave the football team in 2017 to reevaluate his situation and focus on getting everything aligned in a straight path.
“I had a lot of personal issues I had to handle off the field so I could make a comeback,” Willis told the Miami Herald in April. “I just had a lot of family issues. I had to get my mind right so I could be able to focus this year. It worked a lot. I’m a changed person, a changed man.”
Willis’ character improvements have increased his play on the field. The redshirt senior is on track to take home all-conference honors and, as stated already, is invited to attend the Senior Bowl.
Willis continues to prove his former five-star billing each week. His name should not go unmentioned when listing the top defensive line prospects, even in a talented class headlined by highly-regarded first round players.