Athletic abilities are stitched inside the genes of a select few. For Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis, that is certainly the case.
The 6-foot-4, 223-pound field general is molded from a family of elite athletes. Willis’ father Steve was a kicker at Kansas State from 1981-1984, and his mother Lois was an All-American track and field athlete at Iowa State. The sports bloodline was passed down to Willis’ two older sisters, as Lauren was a part of two Final Four runs for Oklahoma from 2008-2011, and Abby graduated in 2013, playing college basketball at St. Louis University. It only seemed right that Willis would be poised for the same destiny.
“My dad always told me when I was growing up, ‘You’re going to play Division I sports.’ I always kind of expected that and it happened,” Willis said. “It’s a little different when you have older siblings doing it before you. You kind of have expectations to live up to.”
On Saturday night, Willis will start his first college football game since October 15, 2016. It’s been a wild and bouncy ride, but when opportunity comes knocking, Willis has always been ready to answer.
After a standout career at Bishop Miege High School, where he passed for 5,986 yards and 65 touchdowns as the starting quarterback, Willis decided to stay in the state of Kansas and attend Kansas University, coincidentally the rival of his father’s alma mater. As a true freshman, the Jayhawks quarterback depth quickly disintegrated, and Willis was given a baptism by fire, starting the final eight games of the season.
“My redshirt got burned pretty quick,” Willis said. “I really didn’t know what was going on. I was really learning on the fly.”
Following two years at Kansas, where the Jayhawks went 2-22 over that time, Willis knew he needed a fresh start somewhere else. Sometimes all it takes is one connection, and that’s exactly what jump-started Willis’ journey to Virginia Tech. Steve Willis was good friends with Virginia Tech special teams coordinator James Shibest, who even attended a Royals baseball game with the Willis family when Ryan was young.
“James came to me and asked about Ryan, if we’d be interested,” Fuente said. “We really didn’t have a scholarship at the time and all that kind of stuff, but certainly we were interested. I remembered him because we played Kansas when I was at Memphis, and he shared time with one of the other quarterbacks. I think they [Ryan’s parents] were looking for a place where maybe they had some familiarity with people.”
The cards were aligning, but still there was one problem – Willis would have to walk on to the program with no scholarship available. However, the signal caller has never been one to shy away when a risk stands right in front of him. Willis came to Blacksburg in 2017, knowing he would have to redshirt and earn any playing time down the road with a diligent work ethic.
“[Shibest] has been friends with my dad for a while,” Willis said. “I trusted him and my dad trusted him a lot.”
“I had some other opportunities, but I’m here now and that’s all that matters. I’m glad to be a Hokie.”
Willis gave the Virginia Tech faithful the first taste of his rifle arm in the 2018 Spring Game when the gunslinger went 10-for-15 passing for 262 yards and two touchdowns. From that moment on and into fall camp, Willis not only earned the backup quarterback role, but also a scholarship.
After getting some work in the William & Mary game, Willis was thrust into action against Old Dominion when Josh Jackson was forced to exit the game with a fractured left fibula. On short notice, Willis exhibited moxie, leading a fourth quarter drive to tie the game at 35 with a fourth-down touchdown to Chris Cunningham. He could have engineered another game-tying drive if not for a fourth-down drop by Damon Hazelton with 2:33 remaining.
“I knew I was always one play away,” Willis said. “You got to prepare like you’re the starter no matter what. Just got to be ready to go.”
“Ryan has the ability to go operate the offense,” said offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen. “That’s what we expected out of him last week, to come in and be able to go help us win the game. That’s what he did, gave us a chance to move the ball and make plays.”
The Hokies head to Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday night where No. 22 Duke will be waiting in the wings. With Jackson gone for the foreseeable future, the onus lies on the shoulders of Willis to direct Virginia Tech’s offense.
“He’s not much different in the skill set than Josh is,” Cornelsen said. “We’ve got confidence in him to come in and continue to do what we’re doing on offense. He’s obviously been in those situations before. It will be good for him to have a week knowing he’s going to be in the game. It’s always a little different with your urgency and preparation and getting those reps with the ones.”
“When it’s under pressure and the lights are on, cameras are rolling, it’s a whole different experience,” Willis said. “Having game experience gets me a little more excited to get back on the field.
“I’m in my fourth year of college football. You learn a few things along the way.”
On Friday, Willis will celebrate his birthday with his family. Just a day later he’ll start his first college game after nearly a two-year layoff, and the Hokies faithful hope that celebration lingers long into Saturday night.
“My family was actually already planning on coming [to the Duke game],” Willis said. “It’s my birthday on Friday, so they’re going to come celebrate with me. It’s kind of good timing I guess.”