Zac Taylor’s first few months as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals went swimmingly. Players were buying in on the new staff and offensive and defensive playbooks being installed. And then, the wheels began to fall off the bus.
First-round offensive tackle Jonah Williams tore his labrum in OTA’s and was lost for the season. Incumbent left guard Clint Boling announced his retirement just before training camp. Then, receiver A.J. Green tore ligaments in his ankle in the first practice of camp. This injury opened a huge opportunity for players to prove their worth and earn early playing time. That’s where the man of the hour comes into play: Damion Willis.
A rare opportunity
After the injury, Taylor told reporters he expected Green to miss a few games. Green showed up to last Sunday’s practice still in a walking boot, and there are no new updates on his projected return.
A.J. Green was briefly in the locker room today. Still had a boot on his left foot and using the push scooter. Didn’t have an update on his potential return, either.
— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) August 25, 2019
What we do know is that Green won’t be available for the season opener on Sep. 8 in Seattle. Taylor has announced that an undrafted rookie out of Troy, Willis, will start in place of Green. The news comes as a bit of a surprise with veterans Josh Malone and Cody Core currently on the roster. Leaping past veterans on the depth chart, Willis started the third preseason game against the New York Giants and responded with three catches for 55 yards and a touchdown against the Giants first-team defense.
Taylor gave Willis a ringing endorsement in his post-game comments, calling him an ascending player. “This moment has not been too big for him,” Taylor said in the post-game press conference. “We’ve been encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.”
The body of Green, the journey of rare proportions
Willis looks the part, at least physically. Like Green, he’s 6’4” and close in weight at 204 pounds. At Troy’s pro day Willis ran a 4.48 40-yard dash time (Green ran a 4.5). He is humble like Green as well. When notified he’d be starting the season opener, Willis told the team website, “I’m going to wait to Saturday to celebrate.” Saturday is when teams must pare down their rosters to 53 players. Despite the journey from East Mississippi Community College to opening day starter in the NFL, Willis is following Green’s lead of letting his play on the field do the talking.
The comparisons end there, however. Green starred at college football powerhouse Georgia and was the fourth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Willis’ college football journey began in 2015 at East Mississippi Community College. While there, he appeared in the Netflix documentary series Last Chance U. After two seasons at EMCC, Willis transferred to Troy.
In his senior year, Damion Willis caught 56 passes for 876 yards and 10 TDs. Seventeen of those catches went for at least 30 yards. Willis delivered in the 2018 Dollar General Bowl, catching 13 balls for 101 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Trojans to a 42-32 win over Buffalo. He finished the season as a first-team All-Sun Belt player even though he missed 2½ games to injury. Despite his success at Troy, Willis was not invited to the scouting combine.
Cincinnati by chance
The Bengals found Damion Willis by accident. The team’s southeast scout, Mike Potts, was at Troy early in the college football season scouting cornerback Blace Brown. Willis did enough in practice to catch Potts’ attention. When Potts doubled back to watch more tape, he liked what he saw. Potts described Willis as “…aggressive, knows how to contest for the ball at the point and he’s got good hands.”
The Bengals continued doing their homework on Willis through the draft season, including a visit to Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati just before the draft. Once the draft was completed, Cincinnati called Willis with an offer. They promised him a chance to compete with other undrafted free agents and current veterans for the open receiver spot on the team. Willis’ agent Shane Costa researched Cincinnati and liked their track record with undrafted college free agents. After weighing offers from several teams, Damion Willis signed with the Bengals.
A chance to write his story
In early May Willis returned to Southeast Lauderdale high school, his alma mater in Meridian, MS. He became just the third player in school history to have his jersey retired. His message to the audience was simple: Never give up, even if you have to start on the bottom and work your way up. Willis is now living his message. In the three months that followed that speech, he’s worked his way from uninvited to the Scouting Combine and undrafted by 32 teams, to the Cincinnati Bengals starting wide receiver on opening day.
Travis Yates is a writer for PFN covering the Cincinnati Bengals & fantasy football. He is also a co-host of the Fantasy Fixers Podcast on the PFN Podcast Network. You can follow him @TheTravisYates on Twitter.