Full circle: New Orleans native Gerald Willis ready for 1st ever start with Hurricanes in opener vs. LSU

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — Miami defensive lineman Gerald Willis appreciates the symmetry.

He’s a native of New Orleans and was a highly touted high school star, which meant that there were plenty of people around him at that time hoping he would stay relatively close to home and sign with LSU. He wound up going elsewhere, and now after five long — and often troubled — years Willis is about to make the first start of his collegiate career.

It’ll be against LSU.

“Man, it’s great because everything is coming in my favor,” Willis said. “Coming off sitting out a year, having a debut against what was my hometown school, and I’m starting … like I said, man, it’s great.”

Great is not a word that’s often been linked to the 6-foot-4, 295-pound Willis since he entered college five years ago.

Here are his collegiate stats of note: At least three suspensions, three coaching staffs, two schools, two seasons without ever getting on the field, one yearlong leave of absence, one fistfight with a teammate during his lone season at Florida, and zero starts. But the Hurricanes believe that Willis’ checkered past is no longer a cause for concern and they’re counting on him to make the most of his senior year.

So he’ll be in the lineup Sunday, when No. 8 Miami opens against No. 25 LSU in Arlington, Texas.

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“I know it’s very easy to be cynical about college football and the impact that it has on these guys that play the sport,” Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “Everything’s not as good as it could be. But stories like Gerald Willis are at the core of what this sport’s about and the transformation in that guy from the first day we got here … he’s a different guy and everybody sees it.”

Some of the changes are visible. Others aren’t.

Start with the visible ones: Willis used to wear jersey No. 91 at Miami, but asked to change to No. 9 this year — a tribute to former Hurricanes defensive lineman Chad Thomas, one of the key players on last season’s Miami team that won the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division title. Willis was drawn to Thomas’ story, that being one of somebody who overcame long odds and eventually emerged as a locker-room leader.

“I want to be like that,” Willis said.

And then there’s the hidden ones: Willis was in serious academic trouble when he got to Miami after being dismissed by Florida. He used his mandated transfer-redshirt year at Miami to get his grades good enough to play, and at times felt overwhelmed by the demands of being a student-athlete with the Hurricanes. But he stuck with it, realized that his years of self-described immaturity had to end and is now on target to graduate.

“G was a good person all along. Everybody just has their different battles that they go through, their different roads to success,” said Miami defensive end Demetrius Jackson, who invited Willis to be one of his roommates this season. “The question was, ‘Was G ready to get right?’ And when G talked to me, he said it was time to get right. I think G’s probably the best defensive tackle in America when he’s focused. And that’s what we’re seeing right now.”

Naysayers might dismiss Jackson’s praise as hyperbole. But Willis’ potential has been obvious going back to those high school days.

Tons of big-name schools wanted him — Florida, Texas, LSU, Florida State, Alabama and more. He was on a slew of high school All-American lists as both a junior and a senior. On the field, he was ready. Off the field, he wasn’t. He left high school early to get started at Florida, partly because he was eager to get away from struggles and troubles he felt in New Orleans. And his immaturity presented itself any number of ways when he was with the Gators, leading to his getting booted off that team.

“I needed to grow up,” Willis said.

He speaks now like someone who has done just that.

He played in eight games for Florida in 2014 and nine games for Miami in 2016. That’s the extent of his college career and he knows NFL teams will want to see much more if they’re going to invest in him next year. So there is an urgency for Willis, in that 2018 is almost certainly the make-or-break year for his hopes at big-time football success.

“When I’m on the field, I feel something just clicks,” Willis said. “I need to be physical. I need to be dominant. Everything I’ve gone through has just been building me. And so when I’m on the field, I can’t let that person across from me beat me.”

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