Nate Willis, rated as high as the No. 3 junior college cornerback in the nation by one recruiting service, apparently is on track to be at Kentucky this summer after worrying that he not be eligible.
The 6-0, 180-pound Willis signed with UK in February — one of eight four-star players the Cats landed — but indicated he might be a class short of being eligible.
“He is intending to be at Kentucky,” said Arizona Western College coach Tom Minnick. “He thought he might have messed up on a class and have to go to Division II, but that is all straightened out and he’s going to be fine.”
Jerry Dominguez, Arizona Western’s defensive coordinator, said Willis has his core English and math classes completed and should be fine if he completes the work he is scheduled to do this semester now that he’s back home in Florida.
“I think he was a bit overwhelmed, but he will be fine,” Dominguez said. “He’s a strong academic guy. He’s back home finishing his school work and training with a trainer. We talk once a week or more and I am sure he’s going to be fine.”
Willis helped Arizona Western to an 8-2 record his first year and a victory in the El Toro Bowl, the team’s first bowl game win in more than 40 years. The team finished the 2011 regular season No. 1 in the nation and hosted the national championship game before suffering its first loss to finish 11-1. Willis had 19 tackles, one interception and five pass breakups in 2012 after making 31 tackles, one tackle for loss, one fumble forced and three interceptions as a freshman.
“He is a tremendous skill player with a lot of versatility,” Dominguez said. “He returned kicks, played free safety and started at cornerback for us. He’s a very explosive player. One thing that just jumps out is how fast and how quick he is.
“I think his best football is still in front of him. He’s a guy who will only get better and may well have a chance to play in the NFL.”
Willis did not play football his final two years at Pahokee (Fla.) High School to concentrate on basketball and Dominguez said Willis “did not land anywhere” after his high school career ended. However, Arizona Western recruited one of Willis’ teammates and he told them he had a “buddy” who was a good player.
“Everybody has a buddy they think can play,” Dominguez said. “We told him to send in his film. Once we saw it, we liked it and offered him (a scholarship). We really had no idea how great a player he might be, but he started as a true freshman and that’s why he got so much interest (from colleges) this year.”
Minnick calls Willis a “very athletic kid” who was able to overcome laying out of football because of his athleticism.
“He needs to put weight on to be more physical in the SEC. He’s more of a finesse guy. But if he gets in the weight room hard, he’s going to be fine,” Minnick said. “He’s a good kid. He’s really mature. He’s just one of those kids that did not really lift weights in high school and relied on his skills. He needs to be able to give out a pounding more than he does.
“But Nate has really good speed. He is a good finesse player and is around the ball a lot. The only knock on him would be he has to get in the weight room and get to where he can take the pounding in the SEC. But if he’s back home making sure he’s ready to play SEC football, I think he would have a chance to start right away. He’s that good.”
Dominguez said playing in the SEC or Big 12 was something Willis wanted to do because he knew that would give him a chance to showcase his skills as a pass defender more.
“Some Pac-12 schools were interested, but he really wanted to go more south,” Dominguez said. “And he wanted to play where he would go against teams that would throw the football.”
He’s coming from a talented team. Arizona Western had 15 players sign Division I¿scholarships this year and 17 the previous year. Minnick had one former player playing for Alabama in the national title game, one starting at quarterback at Indiana and one running back at Oklahoma. His quarterback from last year has signed with Wisconsin.
“We have a lot of talented kids here and hopefully Kentucky will be recruiting the type kids we have or kids we want and be placing them here if they can’t get in Kentucky right away,”¿Minnick said. “I really had not dealt with the Kentucky staff before, but I¿think we will see Kentucky back out here.”