BLACKSBURG—The first time he huddled up in a college football game with Ryan Willis as his quarterback, Tre Turner admittedly found it a bit jarring.
Turner, a true freshman last season, had been accustomed to the calm demeanor former quarterback Josh Jackson brought to the huddle. So when Turner stepped on the field against Duke on Sept. 22, when Willis made his first start in place of the injured Jackson, he noticed a difference.
“Josh was so calm. He’d tell me things to do,” Turner said. “But when Ryan first got out there, everything was full speed. When he’d get in the huddle, he’d be too excited, just stuttering. I was like, ‘Slow down. Just say the play.’”
Willis led Tech to a 4-6 record after taking over. This year, though the coaching staff refuses to officially say so, Willis goes into the year as the man behind center. He’s still passionate, fiery and excitable, but he also has a higher comfort level leading the Hokies.
“When you’ve had that experience and you’re coming back as the guy who started most of the games the previous year, there’s no question there’s a comfort, there’s an ease about taking on a leadership role,” said Tech offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brad Cornselsen. “You can see it. You can feel it. You can see it in drills.”
Willis threw for 2,716 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, completing 58.5 percent of his throws. He ran for another 354 yards and four scores, earning his teammates’ respect for the fearless, physical way he played.
And that excitable streak?
They learned to appreciate that, too.
“Yeah, he’s as little crazy,” said sophomore linebacker Dax Hollifield, arguably the most animated player Tech will put on the field each week. “He can have that little flare to him. It can be good and bad. Sometimes I get a little out of focus when I’m all jacked up. I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’ I have to calm down to focus back in.”
That, Hollifield said, is where coaching comes in. For him, stern words from defensive coordinator Bud Foster keep him in line. As last season wore on, Cornelsen learned how important it was to keep Willis focused during the game. Calling plays from the coach’s box, he did that over the phone.
“He gets upset when I’m not sitting by the phone, if it rings and I don’t answer on the first ring,” Willis said, referring to the phone on the sideline he uses to communicate with Cornelsen between offensive drives. “I answer as quick as possible. It’s a phone call I can’t miss.”
And it’s an example of how Cornelsen became more comfortable coaching Willis as the season went on. This year, they pick up at a place they hope will allow them to elevate Willis’s game, and the Hokies’ offense along with it.
“The conversations on the headsets between series is something that I had to adjust during the season,” Cornelsen said. “My job is ultimately, ‘How can I help him play better?’ It’s different for each guy.”
“When he’s locked in and he’s executing at a high level, he can do everything you want him to do.”
Willis learned Tech’s offense last season. He learned how to work with his coaches and the ins and outs of his teammates’ personalities. And he said he learned a little something about himself that two brutal seasons at Kansas, when the Jayhawks 1-16 in games he played, including 0-11 in contests he started, had started to reveal.
“I learned I’m never going to quit,” said Willis, who transferred to Tech after the 2016 season. “My two years at Kansas were tough. It’s hard losing a lot of games like that and bouncing back and trying to prepare each week. I learn from failure. It’s not always easy that way. It’s hard learning the hard way. I’ve had some great moments and I’ve had some awful moments.”
Willis has also showed—somewhat to his coaches’ chagrin—that the awful moments won’t scare him away from taking aggressive chances. This season, Cornelsen said he’s hoping Willis will make fewer risky throws and be more willing to throw the ball away when plays don’t present themselves, instead of forcing things or holding it too long and taking a sack.
Willis threw nine interceptions in his 10 starts and was sacked 21 times in those games.
“I think with guys who are talented, guys who can really throw the ball, I think there’s a feeling sometimes for those guys of shooting from the hip or maybe getting outside of the structure of what you’re trying to create as an offense,” Cornelsen said. “That sometimes can create really big plays, but sometimes can hurt you, too. There’s a fine line there, a balance there.”
Willis understands that. He’s also the guy who memorably told the media last year, “Scared money don’t make money.”
“Coach is huge on predicted outcomes. I know you’ve heard him say that 100 times,” Willis said. “I’m definitely a little more on the risky side. I want to take shots. I want to make things happen. I’m not scared out there.”