Name: Gerald Willis III
School: University of Miami
Weight: 300 lbs
2018 stat line: 12 games, 59 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 1 fumble recovery, 2 passes defensed
As the Cowboys prepare for the draft, they are almost certainly looking for potential candidates to replace David Irving as their pass rushing 3-technique defensive tackle. I’ve already covered Renell Wren, whose draft stock seems to increase each day, and our own Connor Livesay also gave some looks at Michael Dogbe and DeMarcus Christmas. Now it’s time for the athletic defensive tackle from the U, Gerald Willis III.
Any conversation about Willis has to start with his off-field past. Willis originally committed to the University of Florida, but he was dismissed from the team after his freshman year for violating several team rules. He transferred to Miami, sat out a year, and began working his way into a role with the defense. However, he still faced issues and served some suspensions, so Willis made the bold decision to take a leave of absence for the 2017 season to focus on getting his life right. He returned to the team for the 2018 season and was a model citizen, later becoming the starting defensive tackle for the third-ranked defense in college football this year.
Willis was a big part of that defense, serving as a wrecking ball in the middle of the line of scrimmage and functioning as a secondary pass rusher. In fact, Willis’ 18 tackles for loss are the most for any Canes defender since Calais Campbell. And much like Campbell, Willis is a force to be reckoned with due to his sheer skill. Willis doesn’t possess the kinds of natural physical gifts that someone like Wren does, but Willis makes up for it in technique.
When rushing the passer, Willis has a deep repertoire of pass rush moves that he will utilize; his swim move and rip move are particularly effective. More than that, Willis is highly effective with his hand placement, which is a good thing because he doesn’t have the kind of length that most players at this position have. While not overly athletic, Willis is pretty explosive in the short game, and he does a good job at moving around the line of scrimmage. He uses his hands to disengage from blocks and then move laterally to grab the ball-carrier, which contributed to his huge tackle for loss number.
And while that explosiveness does exist in short bursts, Willis isn’t that consistent with it, and that seems to be his biggest weakness. Whereas he makes up for his lack of ideal length with technique, Willis can sometimes have a slow get off, which puts him behind the eight ball in taking on offensive linemen. I don’t think I ever saw him hold up against a double team in 2018, and the bigger offensive guards bully him more often than you’d like out of a guy who weighs 300 pounds.
But those are issues that can be fixed with the kind of scheme Willis would see in Dallas. Rod Marinelli uses a fairly deep rotation on the defensive line, and the Cowboys saw some really good things from both Maliek Collins and Tyrone Crawford at the 3-technique spot. If drafted, Willis would effectively serve as the 3-technique in pass rush packages, at least for his rookie season while he got better conditioning, and coaching, to be more consistent coming off the line.
Additionally, Willis seems to be pigeonholed into a 3-technique role in a 4-3 scheme that features aggressive, up-the-field play. That makes him an ideal fit for Dallas, and that lack of scheme versatility could lead to Willis dropping during the draft. His draft projections are all over the board, with some mocks having him as high as the late-first-round, while other projections see him somewhere in the second round. It’s early too predict, but come draft time Willis may have moved out of the Cowboys range.
But the big question is, fair or not, whether or not Willis really has his off-field life figured out. The 2018 season was promising for Willis, but it’s a small sample size after a pretty checkered past. And for the Cowboys, who are likely to move on from Irving solely because of his off-field problems, maybe they’ll be less likely to take a chance on Willis. He offers a very high ceiling, but also potentially a very low floor. Jason Garrett and the staff will need to do their homework on Willis if they interview him at any point in the process.