Tay Willis returned a kick 92-yards for a TD against Missouri State last season.
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Southern Illinois University wide receiver Tay Willis may be the fastest player to ever wear a Saluki football jersey.
When he was a freshman at Highland Community College, Willis was tested in the 40-yard dash. As soon as he crossed the finish line, the coaches huddled together and looked at each others' stopwatches in disbelief. "Son, you just ran a 4.14," one coach told him. Thinking they had made a mistake, the staff clocked him again with a handheld laser. This time it registered a blazing 4.26. For comparison, the fastest time ever recorded at the NFL Combine was a 4.24 by Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson.
At 5-foot-9 and 169-pounds, the Newnan, Ga. native is built for speed. During practice on Monday, the 22-year-old senior blew past a defensive back in man coverage for an easy touchdown. "That's not fair, Tay," the defender barked at him afterward.
Once he hits high gear, you're not going to catch Willis from behind. Missouri State found that out last year after Willis returned a kickoff 92 yards for a score.
"I love returning kicks," Willis said. "You have 11 guys running at you full speed, but if you can make one or two guys miss, and you get good blocking, you have a chance to take it to the house."
In an effort to tap into his breakaway speed more often this year, the coaching staff moved Willis from running back to wideout. In fact, that was the original plan last season, but an injury to starting tailback Malcolm Agnew during camp forced the coaches to leave Willis at running back for depth purposes. He wound up touching the football 96 times as either a running back, receiver or return man and his 794 all-purpose yards were fourth-best on the team.
The Salukis were fortunate to land Willis in 2013, because twice he was nearly headed to Southeastern Conference schools. After rushing for more than 2,000 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior at East Coweta High School, he was going to sign with Mississippi State, but fell one point shy of qualifying on his ACT. Then after two seasons at Highland, he committed to Mississippi, but an issue with his transcript cost him the scholarship. He wound up sitting out the 2012 season before arriving at Southern in the spring of 2013.
The Salukis are hoping Willis' move from running back to wide receiver goes as smoothly as the transition made by LaSteven McKinney, who went through the same process two years. McKinney led the team with 51 catches last year.
"We talk to each other often and LaSteven has been a big help," Willis said. "The hardest thing about playing receiver is running precise routes. I had to take a lot of time working on that this summer."
"The tempo of playing receiver is different, also, and it's gotten me in a lot better shape," he continued. "Some plays I'll run 50 yards down the field and run right back to the huddle and do it all over again."
It's probably not a good idea to bet against Willis. Just ask St. Louis Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree, who played against Willis in high school. "
"Our high schools were arch-rivals, I was the number-two rated running back in the state, and he told the newspaper that I wouldn't get a touchdown and I wouldn't get over 50 yards," Willis recalled. "First play I touched the ball I took it for 60 yards. I finished the game with two touchdowns and over 150 yards."
Since SIU doesn't routinely time its players in the 40-yard dash, we'll have to take Willis' word for it that he's the fastest player on the team. He admits that Agnew and McKinney are not far off the pace, though.
"We have a lot of speed," Willis said. "(Quarterbacks coach) Nick Hill played on some great teams here and he said this team is one of the most talented offenses ever at SIU. I think Saluki fans can look forward to a lot of explosive plays this year."
The Saluki football team practiced in a steady, light rain on Tuesday morning, the third day of training camp.
1. Players wore shoulder pads for the first time and spent a large portion of practice working on the running game. RB Malcolm Agnew was very impressive, displaying good vision to find creases to run through. RB Cameron Walter was also a standout. The redshirt freshman has a knack for pressing the hole and maximizing yardage. He also has a nice burst of speed. With RB Ken Malcome still sidelined with an injury, Walter is making the most of his opportunity.
2. The Salukis have the makings of a solid offensive line. Combined, SIU's offensive linemen have made 74 starts. During spring ball, the Salukis played without LT Ethan Wirth and RG Jake Notario. Both players are back now, and it seemed that many of the better runs today came behind Notario. Tanner Crum is the anchor at center, and Corey Boemer has made a smooth transition to right tackle, after playing guard last year. The only starting spot to be determined is left guard, where Jamarcus Robinson and Kijana Evans are splitting reps with the first team.
3. In the quarterback battle, both Mark Iannotti and Ryan West played well today. Iannotti was decisive and showed a quick release. He connected on deep strikes to WR Tay Willis and WR Kyle Newquist. West delivered a long ball to WR Darrell James and made a perfect toss to WR LaSteven McKinney on a flag route.
4. All-American TE MyCole Pruitt made a couple of nice catches in heavy traffic today. He is a physical specimen at 6-foot-3 and a chiseled 255 pounds, and NFL scouts will keep a close eye on the senior this year.
5. CB Keith Suggs had an interception today and has made several nice plays on the ball during these early days of practice. The Toledo transfer, who played in all 12 games for SIU last year but did not start, will press for a starting job this year.
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