LAWRENCE — Kansas linebacker Darius Willis was eating lunch one day at Eisenhower High in Houston when a college football coach stopped by to meet him.
Turner Gill was there to convince Willis, a quarterback and linebacker, to choose to go to school 1,500 miles away from home to play for Gill at the University at Buffalo. Willis was immediately impressed with how straightforward Gill was.
He was intrigued, but, moving to Buffalo? It didn't make sense to most folks in Houston.
"A lot of people didn't really know what Buffalo was," Willis said. "A lot of people thought I was talking about the Bills. They're like, 'Is somebody drafting you?' I'm like, 'It's the University at Buffalo.' "
Maybe it didn't make sense. But Willis couldn't shake the feeling that Buffalo was right for him, which said a lot about who Willis was as an 18-year-old.
"I felt like being away from home would make me grow up faster," Willis said. "I'd kind of be on my own, so I'd have to make a lot of decisions that a lot of kids at my age wouldn't be able to make."
Willis was blazing his own path, which coincidentally followed Gill's — from a Texas upbringing to western New York. His belief in the coach paid off, as Willis was the only true freshman to play for Buffalo in 2009. One memory sticks out to Willis from that season: a pregame speech Gill gave before one of the first few games.
"He wanted us to ride with each other," Willis said. "He brought out a helmet, and he put the helmet on and told us he was gonna ride with us. Once we saw Coach put on the helmet, we knew everybody was in, and we went out and played as one unit."
Almost two years later, Gill and Willis are still riding together. After Gill was hired at Kansas, Willis gave the new coaching staff at Buffalo a chance and went through spring practice. But he soon decided that KU was the place for him, and suddenly he was moving another 1,000 miles across the country to Lawrence to be reunited with Gill, assistant coaches Robert Wimberly and Aaron Stamn and fullback Nick Sizemore, also a Buffalo transfer.
Willis sat out 2010 due to NCAA transfer rules, but he's expected to start at middle linebacker for the Jayhawks as a sophomore. That's a heavy load for any underclassman, but Willis (6-foot-2, 243 pounds) can call on his experience as a quarterback in high school for how to be a leader.
Willis will join senior Steven Johnson to lead what should be a much-improved linebacker corps.
"Darius is a little different kind of guy (than Steven)," KU defensive coordinator Vic Shealy said. "Darius is more of a quarterback. From his background on offense, he has great set recognition and he can hold a volume of scheme in his head and get people lined up. That's a great quality to have as a mike linebacker. Darius has got great intangible qualities. He's got a very enthusiastic, upbeat personality."
Gill saw something in Willis three years ago when he made the trip from Buffalo to Houston. Now he's seeing that vision play out at Kansas.
"Every day he is doing better," Gill said. "He didn't get the reps there in the fall, but he did in the spring and now he's getting more and more reps. He's definitely a guy who can get our defense set. Number one, we gotta get our guys lined up. We're definitely improved in that. He's done a good job. He's definitely coming on."
So far, Willis' latest move to play for Gill has worked out as planned.
"It's great knowing you have somebody," Willis said, "a leader like Coach Gill that you can depend on and know he's going to have your back."