Brayden Willis the heart of OU
There were a number of reasons why tight end Brayden Willis decided to return to Oklahoma for a fifth season instead of entering the NFL Draft.
One big thing always resonated. Willis mentioned how he had always been in a room, been a key member of a tight end room, but never the guy.
Willis was going to be the guy for Joe Jon Finley’s guys in 2022 was the expectation. Through six up-and-down games, Willis has been a lot more than that.
He’s not just the leader of the tight end group. He’s arguably the leader of the offense and on the short list of guys who have the pulse and respect of the entire team. He’s part of the heart and soul.
Willis didn’t envision a 3-3 start just like everybody else who has been stunned, but he’s making sure this final ride is everything he can possibly make it.
“I thought this entire time that his skill set is unique because he gives you the ability to do so many different things,” offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby said. “He can play on the perimeter, play in the core, block at the point, block on the perimeter, stretch it down the field and catch footballs all over the field in a lot of different ways.
“I think he's got a unique skill set, and we've got to continue to do a good job of using him and maximizing his ability.”
It started right from the jump when Willis caught two touchdown passes in the first game. And if you’re looking for a bright side to OU’s three-game downturn, Willis has been that.
He caught two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter of the loss vs. Kansas State. He had the best play of the game on a 78-yard reception in the first half of OU’s blowout loss at TCU. And Texas? Well, Willis left it all on the field performing any role that was asked of him.
He was OU’s leading receiver even if it was just two catches for 25 yards, and he was effective, at times, in a tough spot being asked to be a wildcat quarterback vs. the Horns.
That type of commitment, dedication, has definitely been recognized.
“We had kind of a leadership meeting today (Monday) and talked about some guys who are leaders on this team, outside your position group that you respect a lot, and the first name that immediately came to my mind was Brayden Willis,” linebacker DaShaun White said. “He's just such a selfless guy. He's a vocal guy. He knows exactly what to say. He leads by example. Everything that's coming for him, he's worked for it and earned it.”
Willis has 15 catches for 210 yards and four touchdowns and also has the touchdown pass he threw to Marcus Major in OU’s win at Nebraska.
He’s absorbed the blows, being one of the guys who will answer the questions every single week. Arriving for OU’s 2018 class, obviously, Willis has never been a part of a team that was .500 this late in the year or even a three-loss team.
But he’s not afraid of the moment, of the challenge. If OU is going to get back on track, Willis is going to be a massive reason why.
“Just being the best leader that I can. Being an older guy who has been in a lot of situations,” Willis said. “I’ve never been in this situation, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been through a whole lot of football situations. Being an older guy who has been through a lot of stuff. Being able to tell the young guys it’s OK. The sky is not falling down. The sun is still gonna shine in the morning.
“If we can get it turned around, we can still have a really good season. Just making sure the young guys are great mentally. Continue to lead and lead hard. My parents used to say all the time that I’m gonna talk to you until I’m blue in the face. I don’t have too much longer here so I’m going to talk until I’m blue in the face and make sure I get the job done.”
The Sooners have felt tightly wound the last couple of weeks. Thinking instead of playing. Panic might be too strong of a word, but fearing the idea of making a mistake.
For OU to get things rolling again vs. Kansas, it’s time to have fun again.
“I think that the biggest thing for our offense right now actually is to play loose,” Willis said. “Just play loose and relaxed a little bit, and just go out and make plays. That’s the biggest thing. We have to go out and expect to make plays and make those plays. We can’t wait on anybody else to make plays.”
A leader on and off the field and in every way imaginable, Willis is ready to do the little things in hoping it’ll help OU earn the big things once again.