Through the highs and the lows, the spectacular touchdowns and the mind-numbing turnovers, there’s one thing Virginia Tech fans always knew was consistent with Ryan Willis during his time as the starting quarterback: his competitive spirit.
It’s why when Willis was limited to just six appearances in his redshirt senior season because of a turf toe injury and the emergence of Hendon Hooker, it left him missing out on the thing he loved most.
“Of course it wears on you,” Willis said. “We’re playing college athletics, and everyone wants to be on the field. When you’re not on the field, it’s not fun. We go to college to play football. We don’t go there to sit on the bench.
“The hardest part is daily life when you’re injured and you’re hobbling around. You can’t walk to class anymore. You have to go to treatment every day. The psychological fact of getting hurt is hard on any player. I figured out how good of a teammate I was. I supported my guys. Never had ill-will. I wanted to win day in and day out, whether I was on the field or not.”
Willis’ last snap in the maroon and orange came in the 43-41 six overtime victory over North Carolina. Now, over one and half years later, he’s back on the field competing for a championship.
As part of The Spring League, a professional football development league, Willis led the Linemen to a 5-1 record to win the North Division. His squad will face the Jousters (4-2) in the Mega Bowl this Saturday, June 19 at Rice Stadium in Houston (3 p.m. ET, FOX).
“There’s just no better feeling than being out there with the guys and competing,” Willis said. “At the end of the day, football is about competing and trying to win the ball game. That’s what we’re trying to do. We won five in a row, and we’re here in the championship trying to get one more.”
Coached by Hal Mumme, a creator of the Air Raid offense, Willis tosses the ball around 40-50 times per game, putting up astronomical numbers when compared to the rest of the league. He leads the league in passing yards with 1,680 (541 more than second) and 13 passing touchdowns (four more than second).
“Hal changed my philosophy a little bit on playing quarterback,” Willis said. “I have good playmakers around me, and we throw the ball a lot, so we don’t run the ball very much. My whole philosophy is just putting the ball in play. Checking it down when it’s not there. If the ball hits the ground, or it’s incomplete, it’s a dead play, but if you put the ball in play good things happen.
“You have to trust the guys all around you that they’re going to be able to make a play and do something with the ball in their hands. When we throw a wide receiver screen or a little five-yard out, we just call that a long handoff and that’s what we expect to happen. Just get the ball to playmakers in space and good things will happen.”
There’s another secret to Willis’ recent success. He’s never been one to lack confidence as evidenced by his desperation throw to Dalton Keene in the 34-31 overtime victory over Virginia in 2018 and the subsequent “scared money don’t make money” quote to reporters post-game. But now, it’s a more polished confidence.
“Right now, I’m playing more confident than I’ve ever played,” Willis said. “My coach has given me the keys to this offense. I can call what I want, I can go into different formations, I can give the defense different looks. I’m playing confident. The game is moving really slow. I’m seeing things happen before they’re actually happening. Just trusting my guys and trying to have a high completion percentage and put the ball in play.”
With Willis not playing the final six games at Virginia Tech, he went undrafted and his time in Blacksburg came to an unceremonious end.
“No, I don’t look at regrets,” Willis said. “You can’t. You just have to look forward and keep pushing every day.
“I just hope [the fans] remember me as a guy who put it all on the field. Someone who competes every down, leaves it all on the field, and wanted nothing more than to just win every ballgame.”
Now, that NFL dream has reentered the picture. He’s heard from a number of teams and hopes that a strong performance in the Mega Bowl will be the icing on the cake to get a training camp look somewhere.
“They’ve definitely reached out to me,” Willis said. “My phone has been ringing. It’s just trying to figure out where the best situation for me to go is. Right now, I’m worried about the team and winning, but I do know I’m getting my shot. I’m excited. That’s what we dream of as a kid. It’s finally happening. I definitely didn’t take the easiest road, but it’s a good story to tell, I guess.”
Willis will step onto the field on Saturday with a supreme confidence and a desire to compete that has never faded. The Hokies’ faithful saw it, and now it’s risen to even greater heights in The Spring League.
“It’s about competing and never giving up on yourself,” Willis said. “Bringing it every single day. Just trying to get better every single day and knowing you can do it. Trusting the people around you and staying the course. This past year hasn’t been easy by any means, but I brought my lunch pail every day. I went to work, I’ve been throwing non-stop, I’ve been lifting non-stop. Just doing all the right things. When you do the right things, good things are bound to happen.
“I know I’m going to be playing ball whether it’s in the NFL or a different league. I’m just trying to improve myself as a player or a person every day and doing whatever I can to get my shot.”