There are two nights during Jordan Willis’ brief NFL career that illustrate who he is as a person.
The first was April 28, the day the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Willis in the third round out of Kansas State. While other prospective picks were partying with friends and family while watching the draft on television, Willis was sitting alone in his bedroom in Kansas City.
The other defining night was Tuesday, when the Bengals held their annual rookie talent show, in which Willis declined to participate.
“Guys gave me some flack about it, but I just ain’t got that much charisma to be doing something like that,” Willis said. “That’s just how I’ve always been. I just chose to be who I am at the end of the day.”
›› Observations from Bengals training camp: Aug. 16
Because of that deficiency in dazzle, Willis has flown under the radar in training camp while fourth-round defensive end Carl Lawson has been popping eyeballs with his blazing speed off the edge.
But Willis — who ran a 4.53 40-yard dash at the Combine, the fastest of any defensive lineman — cranked things up when the lights came on for last week’s preseason opener against Tampa Bay, recording two quarterback hits, including one of the team’s two sacks.
“There’s a guy who’s going to do something exactly the way you want him to do it,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “And then when he got to go play live football, he stood out. And that’s great.
“We are trying to get him to smile every once in a while,” Lewis added with a laugh. “He’s so doggone serious. He just wants to work to get better. He has that standard answer. ‘Yes sir, coach.’ It’s funny, because when you look at them you would think Carl would be the quiet one. But its not, it’s actually Jordan.”
Not only is Willis reluctant to talk, he’s noticed others haven’t had much to say about him either. And he’s fine with that.
He only received one scholarship offer coming out of Rockhurst High School in southern Kansas City, and even after starring at Kansas State and winning the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award, he still went largely overlooked in the draft process.
“No one talked about me, even though I gave the overall best performance at the combine,” Willis said on draft night. “It’s been like that my whole entire career. I’ve never been in the conversation, but I always find a way to get in the conversation.”
Just like he finds a way to get into the backfield. As fast as he is, he said he’s more than just a speed rusher. That’s where his reticent nature off the field marries up with his gameplan on it.
“I can do more stuff,” he said. “I feel like I don’t need to do everything right now. Obviously I’m going to be playing against some good guys in the season, and I don’t want to put everything out there so that they can study me and be ready for me. So I can give that element of surprise a little bit.
“There’s not too much more, but I can power rush, I can add a little bit more power into my game, I can spin a little bit,” he added. “There’s certain things I can do. It’s just about getting that O lineman in that position and being able to execute it during the game.”
Pro Bowl defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who like Willis recorded a sack in his first preseason game when he took down Michael Vick, said he’s been impressed by the rookie from the start.
“He’s not as exciting or as flashy as Carl, but Jordan’s a natural pass rusher,” Dunlap said. “These young guys can come in and play at a high level right away. If they’re ready, put them out there. And they’re ready.”
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