The Willis to Win

Sept. 22, 2001

By Noah Cohan

Linebackers aren't shy.

They can't be, or they wouldn't be able to fill the many roles that a linebacker has to assume. A good linebacker must be an attacker with a nose for the ball and the ability to make a game-breaking play. He must be a rover, dropping in and out of pass coverage, his target ranging from the quarterback to a tight end. He must also be a run-stuffer, taking down the ballcarrier in that two-to-three-yard zone that separates a short gain from a romp in the secondary.

Being a linebacker, Husky senior Jamaun Willis isn't shy, and the thing he is least shy about is telling anyone who will listen how happy he is to be playing football for the University of Washington.

'I love being a Husky,' the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Willis explains. 'I couldn't ask for anything better.'

Washington couldn't ask for anything better than having Willis - the lone senior in the UW's linebacking corps - as elder statesman to a promising group of younger players. Willis was a major contributor to the Huskies' defensive attack in 2000, finishing with 32 tackles as the Huskies top defensive reserve. Still, he's quick to point out that he has a lot of help.

'Marcus Roberson and Larry Tripplett, not only are they some of the best in the country (at defensive line), but they draw a lot of attention,' he says. 'That gives me an opportunity to get out there and make the plays. I feel as a defense, along with those guys and the guys behind me, that we can be real good this year.'

That's good news for Husky fans, in 2000 witnessed the Husky defense nearly triple the previous year's sack total, as well as hold opponents scoreless after turnovers 68 percent of the time. The improved defense was helped by a breakthrough effort on the part of Willis, who more than tripled his previous career total in tackles in 2000 alone.

After redshirting his freshman year at the UW, Willis was switched to fullback in 1998, his sophomore season. Willis worked his way back onto the defense in 1999 before breaking out in 2000. Once again, Willis has no reservations about crediting others who have helped him, pointing to his wife Cheree as the motivator behind his success in 2000.

'My wife had a lot to do with it. She gave me the opportunity,' he explains. 'I was kind of heavy before now and she helped me trim down and diet. I got faster doing programs and just working hard in the offseason. My summer workouts got a lot more intense.'

While his wife may have helped him gain the quickness needed to play linebacker at the collegiate level, Willis' father, William, provided him with a family history on the gridiron.

'He was highly-touted in the state of California in high school at middle linebacker. I feel (playing linebacker) is in my nature and in my blood,' Willis says. 'My father was my motivation growing up. He gave me the opportunity to get out of the inner city and go to schools that weren't around my neighborhood so I could have the opportunity to play. It was awesome.'\William took Jamaun out of Compton, Calif., to nearby Carson, where Willis would win All-League and All-City honors as a senior. He finished with 144 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, and eight sacks in that season, and was recruited by Michigan, UCLA, Oregon and Iowa State in addition to the University of Washington. Growing up watching USC football, Willis felt a familiarity with the Pac-10. Upon visiting the UW, he immediately felt that the attitude at Washington was right for him.

'When I came on my recruiting trip to Washington, the vibe that I got was that they just wanted to win,' he says. 'It wasn't about blue chip All-Americans, it was just about (each guy) coming in and playing his role.'

Willis' role, though it has come off the bench, has been a crucial one for the Huskies, as he has shown a knack for making big plays in big games.

In Washington's 33-30 win over Oregon State in 2000, the Beavers' only loss of the season, Willis recorded five tackles. In the 1999 Oregon State game, Willis returned his first collegiate interception 24 yards for a touchdown. Against Oregon in 2000, Willis shone in the Huskies lone defeat of the season, registering nine tackles, three of them for loss. He also came through against Arizona in 2000, registering six tackles and swatting away a Wildcat fourth-quarter pass to force a punt that eventually led to the Huskies go-ahead touchdown.

Willis finds nothing unusual about his uncanny ability to make plays against the biggest of foes.

'You have to step up for the big games - you wouldn't be a competitor if you didn't,' he says. 'I feel like that's what football is about. It's about competition, and I love it.'

Husky fans loved it when Willis capped it all off by dropping Purdue's Drew Brees for a six-yard loss in the Huskies 34-24 Rose Bowl victory on Jan. 1, 2001. The victory was the perfect end to a near-perfect 11-1 season for the Huskies, one Willis says he will never forget.

'It was the most incredible experience of my life as far as sports are concerned. So much happened in that season it was like a movie: the injury to Curtis Williams, people fighting back because of their desire to play, the come-from-behind victories in the fourth quarter. You couldn't write a book that's better than the season that we had last year.'

The Huskies' 2000 season may have ended in storybook fashion, but Willis knows the team can't be complacent if they expect similar results in 2001. Even with so many big games on the schedule, the senior linebacker expects to build upon last year's success.

'Coach Neuheisel said when he got here that there's a nucleus to this team, people in the core. Everybody has to get in that core to be championship-caliber, and last year I think that's what happened. This year I feel like we're more a core just because of the things we endured last year.'

Husky fans certainly hope so. When it comes to identifying the guys who have helped the Huskies achieve that championship-caliber core, they shouldn't shy away from naming Jamaun Willis.

No linebacker would.

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