No matter how difficult his upcoming matchup with a defensive end may appear, Dalton Risner reminds himself he has an easier assignment than the other team’s right tackle.
Nothing, he often thinks, could be harder than trying to stop Kansas State pass rusher Jordan Willis.
“I always laugh about it,” Risner, a sophomore offensive lineman, said. “Jordan is so good he makes me want to go tell the tackles on the other team, ‘Good luck this game, man, because I go up against him every week and it’s hell.’ I go into every game feeling sorry for them.”
Opposing teams need no warning when it comes to Willis, a senior defensive end from Kansas City, Mo. He had more sacks (9.5) last season than any other returning Big 12 defender and more tackles for loss (15.5) than any K-State defender since 2013. This season has been more of the same. He already has 11 tackles, two sacks and has played a role in three turnovers.
His best play came last week, when he got around the right side of Missouri State’s offensive line and came crashing down on quarterback Michael Briggs as he was attempting a pass, jarring the ball loose for an interception.
He is the most feared member of a defense that is allowing a national-best 179 yards.
“We have seen a lot of him over the last few years,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “He is just a great developmental player who has come into his own, not uncharacteristic for Kansas State guys. He continues to get better.”
Willis has a loud persona on the football field.
Ask opposing coaches to describe Willis from afar and they will likely tell you about his ferocious hits and energetic celebrations. He is also a team captain, so it’s not hard to imagine him shouting and firing up defenders in the locker room.
But those who know him best paint a different picture of K-State’s star defensive lineman. He is so shy and reserved, they say, that if you spend time with him away from the football field you wouldn’t think he has ever put on pads.
This is a guy who enjoys watching TV alone, monitors politics and claims NASCAR as his favorite sport, because of the strategy involved and the way it reminds him of spending time with his father at body shops.
Rockhurst High coach Tony Severino has a story he likes to tell about his former defensive end. In high school, Willis was so quiet on the field that his teammates never voted him captain. But he was so intelligent, organized and thoughtful off the field that his classmates voted him student council president.
“It took me three years to get a word out of him,” Severino said. “He was always around, working in the weight room or at practice. He was a great player that led by example, but he was never a big rah-rah guy. Then you get him outside of his football realm and he has enough friends to become president of the school. It’s kind of amazing.”
Willis describes himself as quiet. He prefers to let his game speak for itself. Always has. That’s the luxury of having talent.
K-State coaches deemed Willis good enough to warrant a scholarship offer after his sophomore year at Rockhurst, before he played a single varsity snap. The 6-foot-5, 258-pounder has ideal pass-rushing size and an uncanny knack for timing snaps.
He has long delivered on game day, but he faced a new challenge this year.
Willis has been playing football since he was young, but he wasn’t thrust into a leadership position until his senior year of college when teammates named him captain. He was so intimidated by the title that he tried to reject it.
“He came to me and said, ‘I can’t do it,’ ” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “But there was dialogue with him. Maybe you can. Maybe let’s give it a try. From that day forth it has been amazing. He has really stepped forth. He has been demanding of his teammates and his teammates still have respect for him. He has been beneficial in that way.”
Willis has slowly become a vocal leader.
He spoke up in preseason practices, urging teammates to play through heat. He challenged teammates to play smarter and more aggressive after falling behind Stanford 17-0. He led the defensive charge in consecutive blowouts.
Someday soon, Willis might even give a fiery pregame speech.
“I have always been a guy that shows up, puts in work and goes home,” Willis said. “I have never been vocal at all, but when the team thought I was worthy of being a captain, that showed me that guys looked up to me and respected the work I put in. That gave me the confidence to try and lead them on Saturdays and be an even better football player for my team.”
K-State has four captains, and the other three often defer to Willis.
“He is the perfect captain,” K-State quarterback Jesse Ertz said. “As much as you think it needs to be a guy who is yelling and stuff, he does everything he is supposed to do, and extra. Everyone knows what he is about.”
A leader emerges
Severino can’t imagine what Willis is like in the locker room these days. The quiet kid he coached in high school is playing better and talking more than anyone thought possible four years ago.
Snyder can barely believe the transformation himself, and he has seen it up close.
“I appreciate him so very much for that,” Snyder said. “It has helped him come out of his shell and evolve as a person. It will have positive, long-lasting impact on his life.”
K-State’s defense has been a juggernaut this season, ranking in the top 11 nationally of every major statistical category, but that won’t mean much if the Wildcats can’t back up their early play in Big 12 games.
They may need Willis to make more plays than usual against West Virginia on Saturday. They may need him to inspire teammates in the fourth quarter. Whatever it takes, they are confident he will deliver.
Willis has become the type of defensive leader that K-State players wish the opposition luck trying to stop.
“I feel like I am exactly where I am supposed to be,” Willis says. “When I take the field, I feel comfortable. I know that I put in work throughout the week and was there for my teammates, so I know we are all going to be consistent on game day.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett
Kansas State at West Virginia
- When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, W. Va.
- Records: KSU 2-1, 0-0 Big 12; WVU 3-0, 0-0
- Radio: KQAM, 1480-AM; KWLS, 107.9-FM
- TV: ESPNU
Three things about West Virginia
1. The Mountaineers have the best nonconference resume of any Big 12 team. They went 3-0, beating Missouri, Youngstown State and BYU.
2. Skyler Howard is one of the nation’s most accurate passers. The WVU quarterback has completed 74 of 108 passes for 974 yards and six touchdowns.
3. Dana Holgorsen has never coached West Virginia to a victory against K-State. The Wildcats are 4-0 against the Mountaineers as league foes.
K-State defensive backs vs. West Virginia receivers. The Wildcats are more than capable of slowing the Mountaineers’ rushing attack, but there are questions in the secondary. K-State hasn’t faced a spread offense this season, and its defensive backs will be asked to make tackles in space for the first time.
Kellis Robinett’s pick: West Virginia, 28-24
K-State won the last two games in this series by a combined seven points. Things are bound to bounce West Virginia’s way at some point. Playing at home with a 3-0 record, this feels like the year.