Uphill Climb: Can Tackle Jeff Wills, the Largest Player in the 2011 Draft, Make it to the NFL?

by 6 years ago

“If I'm the first pick in the first round, or if I'm the last name called, I'm blessed to have the opportunity to showcase my talent,” Wills tells BroBible. “Everybody in the draft, they are all waiting for that opportunity to show what they are doing — just to work hard and see how they stack up against NFL talent.”

While starting every game for the past two seasons at Minnesota (and playing in every offensive snap), Wills faced his share of top NFL-caliber prospects. In the Big Ten alone in 2010, Wills faced projected first-round defensive ends J.J. Watts (Wisconsin), Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue), and Cameron Heyward (Ohio State). And over the course of the entire season, Wills didn't allow a single sack. So how does the biggest player in the draft, from a BCS conference university, who didn't allow a single sack, not have more buzz among analysts? Football minds like agent Bobby Brown (a Notre Dame and Cleveland Brown receiver) and football lifer Jim Garrett have several theories. Brown believes Minnesota's poor win/loss record may have resulted in scouts turning their attention to other prospects. Garrett adds that it's natural for the average NFL scout to be drawn to the spectacular play instead of to the player who is solid day in and day out. But both agree that Wills still carries with him a huge NFL red flag: His weight.

“Jeff was over 400 pounds at one point,” Brown says. “People still said he moved so well for his size, but that caveat, 'for his size,' that can be the difference if he makes it or not.”

Since Wills played at Brooklyn's Campus Magnet High School, he has struggled with his weight. His then– head coach Eric Barnett spotted the physical talent hiding behind the girth and asked his 400-pound tackle a serious question, point-blank: “Do you want to play D-II football, or do you want to be a Division-I player?” Wills picked the latter and in preparation for that goal soon enrolled at Lackawanna Junior College, a choice Wills considers the most instrumental decision of his life.

While at Lackawanna, Wills started to establish himself as one of the most intriguing JuCo prospects in the country. His rare combination of size, strength, and aggression earned him an athletic scholarship to Minnesota, where his football maturation began on the field and where he continued to fight against his own physique off of it.

Brown explains that coming late to a D-I program and not getting four years in a college-level weight program hurt Wills' development. But as Wills began to focus on his NFL dream, he realized that a body that scouts couldn't ignore was in reach. (“You can't teach 6-7 and 350 pounds,” Brown says. “At a point it's a simple law of physics.”)

So Wills, upon the urging of his brother, headed to DeFranco's Training System in Wyckoff, New Jersey, upon graduating early. “I've been able to work out with special attention, and focus on losing weight and gaining strength,” Wills explains. “When I left Minnesota I was about 355-360, and now I am around 335. When I went back to school they said, 'What happened to you?' People that saw me at Lackawanna, I walk by them and they don't recognize me. I've come a long way, but there is still have a long way to go.”

At DeFranco's, Wills has worked alongside the Jets' Antonio Cromartie, the Texans' Brian Cushing, and the Giants' David Diehl. Leading up this weekend's draft, Wills has reportedly impressed a handful of teams, including the hometown Giants and Jets, as well as the Jaguars, Chiefs, and Colts. Using his improved body as his claim to a contract, Wills has convinced NFL personnel that he is serious about his career, and is putting in the hard work (including five days a week at DeFranco's) to make, and stay in, the league. He has also seriously impressed his trainer.{pagebreak}

“He dragged a 1,200-pound sled 15 yards,” says Joe DeFranco, founder of DeFranco's Training Systems. “I haven't seen that done; I put a video up on my site just because it's such impressive functional strength. He flips around a 600-pound tire, the kind of strength unmatched by anybody in the gym, including Cushing and Diehl. If Jeff Wills grabs a hold of you, you're in trouble, I don't care who you are.”

For Jim Garrett, a man that has spent his life coaching in college and in the NFL, as well as raising current Dallas head coach Jason Garrett, if Wills makes it in the NFL it won't be because of his power and athleticism but because he listens and executes the will of his coaches.

“There are a lot of guys I've seen that don't have great athletic bearing, and turned out to be great position players,” Garrett says. “The first time you see them you might not recognize it, but they aren't up and down like yo-yo's; you know, they can do what they are supposed to. Especially on the offensive line: Give me a guy that does what they are supposed to do. Wills is a guy you can chart before the game even starts.”

Garrett adds that even despite all Wills' character and performance, making it in the NFL still requires a team giving him his chance. And even then, it will require patience. In most scouts' eyes the mammoth tackle is still “a year or two away.” But Garrett recalls that he once worked with a wide receiver from tiny Monmouth University. That receiver was also “a year or two away” but was also admittedly exceptionally talented. Undrafted, he eventually made the Dallas Cowboys' roster and was given the chance to grow and learn in practice and on special teams. Without that “chance” and the Cowboys' patience, you probably wouldn't be drafting Miles Austin onto your fantasy team next fall.

“[Wills] is such a great kid, you just hope that somebody, and it sometimes doesn't happen, that somebody is just going to teach and teach and teach, and not make an early decision on his career,” Garrett says.

Each NFL career starts somewhere, and like most prospective late-rounders, Wills has done everything in his power to play in the NFL. Now he just needs one team to give him a chance. A couple years ago, Wills had the largest frame in his class and was engaged in fight against his own size, and yet by Saturday night he may have secured his opportunity to strap on shoulder pads and prove he can beat the guy in front of him.

“I talked to Jeff at length,” Garrett says, “and I told him, 'Listen, it's not how you get there, it's what you do when you get there.' The story is Tom Brady crying. I told Dallas to take him in the second or third round — he wasn't taken until the 6th. The prestige of your draft selection has nothing to do with it. When you get there, look 'em in the eye and say, 'You should have taken me earlier.' “

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