Chances are, Austin Willis may never play a regular-season game for the Oakland Raiders – or any other NFL team.
He’s a 5-foot-9, 176-pound wide receiver from a tiny school not many people could pinpoint on a map and had to earn a spot on the Raiders’ current roster by performing well at a three-day rookie minicamp this spring after going undrafted.
Yet Willis, from Emporia State in Kansas, could also be a hidden gem because of his speed, good hands and ability to return kicks.
When the Raiders open training camp in late July, Willis will be among the long shots to make a wide receiver corps that already includes Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Rod Streater, Andre Holmes, Kenbrell Thompkins and Brice Butler. He hopes to catch the eye of head coach Jack Del Rio and his coaching staff.
Yet Willis so far has shown well through the rookie minicamp, organized team activities (OTAs) and full-squad minicamp. His speed (he was timed in 4.38 in the 40-yard dash at his pro days) and 21 reps on the bench press at 225 pounds are good numbers.
According to Levi Damien of SB Nation, Willis caught the eye of Raiders officials when they were at the Kansas pro day, where Willis was invited to participate.
At Division II Emporia, Willis was a playmaker. As a senior, he caught 56 passes for 757 yards and six touchdowns; as a junior, he had 45 catches for 911 yards and 10 touchdowns. His numbers as a senior would have been much better had not starting quarterback Brent Wilson gone down with an injury after just five games.
At Emporia, Willis – who went to the school to run track, than went out for football -- returned a kickoff for a touchdown as a senior and was a gunner on punt and kick-coverage special teams units since his freshman year.
Former Emporia State tight end Adam Schiltz, now with the Kansas City Chiefs, told a reporter this offseason that Willis has eye-catching speed.
“He’s fast,” he said. “You can’t explain it. He’s just super fast. The guy just has it. There are very few that have that speed, and when they have it, they have it.”
Willis says he knew he had a rare chance to show what he could do when the Raiders brought him in for the rookie minicamp audition.
“I did everything I could,” Willis told the Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal. “I tried to hustle around wherever I was going. They just wanted to see me moving around and wanted to see me have some want-to, so I just showed as much as I could.”
He also made catches and demonstrated his speed.
“I knew if I ran fast, caught the ball and did my assignment, it’s hard for people not to notice,” Willis told the newspaper.
Willis still faces long odds, but he’s made it this far. He’s determined to keep giving it his all on and off the field.
“Every day you’re going to be learning new things,” he said. “You’re putting new plays in, you’re learning new drills. You have to remember all those little things. Going forward, it’s gong to be about doing all the little things right.”