If all you knew about former Miami Hurricanes defensive tackle Gerald Willis was what he did on the field in 2018, you might have thought he should be a first-round draft pick. If you knew the whole story, you weren’t surprised that he went undrafted.
Mel Kiper of ESPN may not have known the whole story of Willis’s college career, because Kiper spent much of the third day of the draft expressing surprise that Willis hadn’t been selected yet.
Now Willis has his NFL team, the Ravens, who signed him as an undrafted free agent on Saturday evening.
Kiper said before the draft that Willis would be off the board by the end of Round 3 “at the latest,” and on Saturday he said repeatedly that he was surprised Willis wasn’t going in Round 4, Round 5, Round 6 or Round 7. Based solely on 2018, it’s easy to see why Kiper felt that way: Willis was chosen as the Hurricanes’ MVP, and he was named on multiple All-American teams.
But NFL teams look at a lot more than that. For starters, they look at the fact that Willis began his career as a five-star recruit at Florida, played for the Gators as a true freshman in 2014, and then got kicked off the team for what was described as “a string of off- and on-field incidents.” We don’t know the nature of all of those incidents (two of them included a fight with teammate Skyler Mornhinweg and a cheap shot at Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston) but suffice to say football powers like Florida don’t kick five-star recruits off the team unless those incidents are serious.
Willis then sat out 2015 and transferred to Miami. He got on the field as a backup in 2016, but then didn’t play in 2017 for what he described as “a lot of personal issues.”
His excellent 2018 season was Willis’s only year as a starter, and even that year came with some potential red flags in the form of injuries that cut his season short and prevented him from working out at the Combine. It also doesn’t help that he’s better against the run than he is as a pass rusher, and teams are increasingly prioritizing interior pass rushers.
So Willis was a one-year starter, was kicked off his first college team, missed a full season on his second college team with personal issues, missed time with injuries in his only season as a starter, and didn’t work out at the Combine because of injuries. The story should probably be less that it’s a surprise Willis went undrafted than that it’s a surprise Kiper thought Willis would be drafted in the first three rounds.