Then-sophomore defensive tackle Kevin Willis watches from the sidelines during the game against Toledo on Oct. 3, 2015 at Scheumann Stadium. Breanna Daugherty // DN
Former IU recruit's switch to defense pays off at Ball State
It was all but a done deal.
Growing up in Indianapolis, Kevin Willis had always been an Indiana University fan. So when the Hoosiers' coaching staff showed interest in the Lawrence Central High School offensive lineman, he was ready to commit.
There was just one problem. Willis wanted to play defense.
Kevin Willis — Bio
Jersey number — 93
Position — Defensive tackle
Height — 6-foot-2
Weight — 303 lbs
Year — Junior
Hometown — Indianapolis, Ind.
"They held my offer because they wanted to look at me more as a center because my junior and senior year I played O-line," he said. "I said, 'Nah, I'm not going to do that. ... I'm going to play D-line, what I really want to play.'"
Fast forward three years and Willis' bold decision couldn't have paid off any better. Listed at 6-feet, 2-inches and 303 pounds, he's the biggest guy on a talented Ball State defensive line, and has been a mainstay in the starting lineup over the past two seasons.
And on Saturday, he'll travel to Bloomington to do battle with the team that let him walk.
"When I first found out we were going to play IU, that was a big surprise and shock for me," Willis said. "Something in my stomach came to me and made me think, 'OK, I've gotta work as hard as I can to make sure I get to them and play as best as I can because I really want to beat IU."
Willis was close to playing for the Hoosiers. Like, really close.
When the ESPN 3-star recruit got invited to a kickoff dinner at IU during the summer after a high school camp, he went to the event planning on committing that night. Indiana was Willis' first and only offer, and he had been to visit several times.
He had gotten close with the former coaching staff there. But it was when Willis tried to make his commitment as a defensive lineman that he learned the Hoosiers weren't on the same page.
"I had made my decision after that camp, but when I tried to do it, they said 'Hold on,'" Willis said.
Willis knows it was a stretch for former Ball State coach Pete Lembo to offer him a scholarship. He played both offense and defense his first two years of high school but didn't play any defensive line his junior or senior seasons.
"Obviously, I didn't have much D-line film," Willis said. "But [Lembo] based it off of the camps I went to and when I worked at D-line. He had enough trust in me, and these coaches have enough trust in me now to make me a starter. So I'm very thankful."
In his first two years under Lembo, Willis played in 18 games (13 starts) and recorded 27 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack and a fumble recovery.
Ball State went through a total coaching turnover in the offseason, leaving the returning players to audition for their jobs again. First-year head coach Mike Neu was impressed with Willis and his weight room numbers right away.
"[Willis] is one of those guys that comes ready to work every day," Neu said. "He's very consistent, always has a great attitude. I know he wants to have success, and he's been a lot of fun to work with. We count on him heavily to anchor the middle of our defense."
Willis only had one tackle in a season-opening, 31-21 win over Georgia State last weekend, but was a big part of Ball State holding the Panthers to 77 rushing yards.
Defensive line coach Keith McKenzie said Willis is a talent he's glad to have.
"I think I could get more out of [Willis]," McKenzie said. "He's a good football player, and I think he's an all-conference talent. My job right now is to push his limits, to push his ceiling. It's going to be a big challenge for him."
It's easy to see that Willis is well-liked and respected in the Cardinals' locker room. "A smart kid," redshirt junior defensive end Anthony Winbush called him.
He's a high-character guy, Neu said, and will do anything you ask on or off the football field.
"He appreciates every opportunity he gets to play the game," Neu added. "This is going to be a great opportunity for him — as it is for all our guys — to go take on IU."
Willis has a lot of family and friends from Indiana and outside the state coming to the game on Saturday.
He will take the field at Memorial Stadium with his Ball State teammates as a visitor. Three years ago, Willis was a letter of intent away from it being his home field.
It didn't work out, Willis becoming a Hoosier. But in hindsight, it did work out, and Willis couldn't be happier with the way that it did.
"I'm not a big boaster or anything, but I think I would come out and be very excited and happy (if we won)," he said. "It will be good to see my friends at IU, and it would also be good to kind of rub it in their face, too."