Jordan Willis hadn’t played a single down of varsity football when he verbally committed to play for Kansas State.
He transferred to Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo. midway through his freshman year and was ineligible to play for the varsity team his sophomore season. But in the summer of 2011 just before his junior year, he went to a one-day camp in Manhattan, Kansas and impressed the Wildcat staff enough to receive an offer.
“One day in the summer he came up to me and said, ‘Kansas State wants me,’” said Tony Severino, who coached Willis at Rockhurst and lettered at Kansas State from 1968-69. “He hadn’t even played a game of varsity ball. Jordan’s one of those guys who has all the measurables- size, speed, strength. He impressed them.”
Five years later, the senior defensive end continues to impress as the epitome of consistency and preparation.
Willis entered the 2016 season tied for third in the Big 12 in most career starts with 26. He started every game his sophomore and junior seasons and has developed into the heart of Kansas State’s defense. His work ethic on and off the field earned Willis the honor of being one of four team captains this season.
“[Being named captain] shows how my team respects me and expects me to be a leader,” Willis said. “It’s about consistency. I’m always on time, actually 15 to 20 minutes early. I bring a positive attitude and consistent effort to the weight room, to practice and on Saturdays.”
Willis is very quiet and prefers to let his play do the talking, so he originally tried to reject the team captain title. But once he accepted the role he immediately started to thrive.
He’s currently in a three-way tie for the most sacks in the Big 12 with six and has notched 29 total tackles. Last season he recorded 35 tackles and led the conference in forced fumbles.
Willis has improved tremendously from the true freshman who played in nine games and wants to continue that trend in his final year.
“Honestly, for myself, the only goal is to continue to improve,” Willis said. “It keeps me in a focused mindset. You can miss a lot if you look at [your senior season] as your last time for everything. I see it as another season, that’s the best way to go about it.”
Willis plans to take a shot at reaching the NFL after his time as a Wildcat ends, but if that doesn’t work out he said he wants to pursue a coaching career. He has been influenced by two legendary coaches in Severino and Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder, who have been inducted into the Missouri High School Coaches Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame, respectively.
Severino was surprised to learn Willis’ current career plans — when he left Rockhurst, Willis was going to be a preacher — but said he wouldn’t be surprised if his former player finds success.
“He’d probably do alright,” Severino said. “He’s a great preparation guy. He’s not a rah-rah guy, he’s very business-like. When he has a goal, he tries hard to achieve it.”
But Willis is still a long way from planning a post-college life. Kansas State has six contests left in the regular season and Willis believes they can reach a bowl game. As for this weekend’s matchup with Texas, he said the Wildcats need to be ready for a fight.
“It’s going to be a physical football game,” Willis said. “[Texas] has no slack in their belt and a very balanced football team. We have a real challenge on our hands.”