NCF Nation: Gerald Willis


NEW ORLEANS -- April Justin places great importance on the pinkie swear.

Justin made her son, Alabama safety Landon Collins, guarantee that he would do whatever it took to become an impact player when he picked Alabama over her preferred college, LSU, in 2012.

Justin said this week that she might require her son to make a similar promise if she is to approve his entering the NFL draft after an All-American junior season.

“We’re going to review it,” Justin said. “I think he’s going to make the jump, but we’re going to review it because my biggest thing is walking out of there with a degree. So we’re going to see how it all goes.

“He has all the way up to August of next year. So I need him to do another pinkie swear with me to make sure that I get that degree because he would be the first one [in my family] to complete college at a high-level college.”

Although Collins' impending decision will generate national attention -- ESPN Scouts Inc. lists him as the No. 10 overall NFL prospect for 2015 should he enter the draft -- there is no way it will make waves the way his last pinkie swear did with his mom.

Justin became perhaps the most famous mom in college football overnight when she emotionally disagreed with Collins’ decision to commit to Alabama during an in-game ceremony at the Under Armour All-America High School Football Game, televised live on ESPN.

She had already been separated from her son once before, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged their hometown of New Orleans, and she desperately wanted her oldest son to play closer to home. Particularly because she believed that her younger son -- defensive tackle Gerald Willis, who is now at Florida -- would join Collins as a teammate at LSU.

“It would have happened. If I would have went to LSU, Gerald was coming with me,” Collins admitted.

Instead, Collins picked Alabama and held firm to his commitment, even if his mom and numerous angry LSU fans were very much against his decision to leave his home state.

He talked her into seeing things his way with that pinkie swear.

“We pinkie-sweared and I took a deep breath and walked down the stairs and signed his life away to Alabama, even though I hated it,” Justin said. “But we pinkie-sweared, and one thing about Landon is he keeps his promises, and he promised me that this is what he was going to do, and actually he stuck to it. So I’m proud of that, even though it’s not at LSU. But that’s the only reason why, because I wasn’t signing the papers. I should have just ran with them.”

It has been almost exactly three years since Collins made his decision, and Justin maintains that he would have played just as well -- and maybe played earlier -- had he chosen Les Miles’ Tigers. But Collins believes his mom has come around, at least somewhat, on his decision since he has become a success with the Crimson Tide.

“I told her at the end of the day, I’m going to do what I said I was going to do and I always kept that promise,” Collins said. “I said, ‘I’m going to pinkie-promise you, I’m going to do what I need to do, so you don’t have worries. You don’t have to worry about me being on the sideline for three years. I’m going to be on the field doing my thing.’

“And that’s what she said: ‘If you pinkie-promise, then I’m going to be all right with it.’ And ever since then, she’s been all right with it and having a fantastic time, enjoying me playing and supporting me.”

In fact, Justin called herself the No. 1 fan for both of her sons, adding that she would probably take a loss harder than her son should the Crimson Tide lose in Thursday's College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State. After all, she has been the intermediary between numerous friends and family members in search of tickets and her son, who might be playing his final college game in his home state on Thursday.

“I said, ‘Lord, with all these requests, I wish that he was playing at the Rose Bowl.' Then I know I wouldn’t have all these requests,” Justin joked. “Then it would just be me and just be his immediate family like it’s been, but since we’re at home, everybody wants to see if they can get a ticket.”

Collins said Tuesday that he has come up with 22 tickets for those well-wishers, which is an impressive number even if it probably didn’t come close to satisfying the demand. Such is the case for players when they return for a big game close to home -- even those who have been vilified by many for leaving the state in order to play for the rival Crimson Tide.

Some of those fans might come around if Collins does enter the draft and he goes to the New Orleans Saints, who might be the only team more beloved than LSU in the Pelican State. But even then, Collins isn’t so sure.

“I got a couple tweets talking about, ‘Don’t come back to New Orleans.’ So that’s all up to the Saints, baby,” Collins chuckled.

But that outcome would be just fine with Mom once the season finally ends, and this time they come to an agreement about his next step.

“If he does declare, then I’ll be a busy bee running around, managing Mr. Collins. It will be all new,” Justin said. “I can’t wait, but we’ll see. We’ll definitely see. I hope we get to Dallas [for the CFP championship game]. That’s our main focus, not worrying about [the NFL] right now. We’ll worry about getting to the next game.”

Gerald Willis, this is not the way to show your passion for the Florida-Florida State rivalry.

Willis, the Gators defensive lineman, took a cheap shop at Jameis Winston after a Winston run at the 4:33 mark of the second quarter, shoving the Seminoles quarterback on the Florida sideline well after the play.

Frustration among Florida coaches was visible afterward, as they sent Willis off to the locker room after the freshman was flagged. Winston, for his part, kept his cool, so the situation did not escalate.

"That's pathetic," ESPN color commentator Kirk Herbstreit remarked on the broadcast.

SEC lunchtime links

July, 23, 2014
7/23/14
12:00
PM ET
Between Steve Spurrier taking jabs at Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban opening up about where his dance moves originated, Tuesday was quite a day on ESPN's "Car Wash." At one point, the two shared the desk on "College Football Live."

 

The coaches have all returned to their schools, and fall camp is just around the corner. Be sure to read Wednesday's lunch links for the latest news and notes around the SEC.
When a football coaching staff signs one of the top few recruits at any position, it's cause for celebration. Therefore, grabbing two of the top three prospects at that position might warrant an Animal House-style party.

Between 2006, when ESPN began assembling recruit rankings, and 2013, individual programs managed to sign at least two of the top three players at a position 16 times. In many cases, one -- and sometimes both -- of those players became instant stars as true freshmen. Think Taylor Mays and Joe McKnight at USC, De'Anthony Thomas at Oregon, Laremy Tunsil at Ole Miss and Sean Spence at Miami.

This was a relatively unique occurrence up until 2014, when it happened five times -- with four of the five instances occurring in the SEC: twice at Alabama, which signed the top two players at both center (No. 1 Josh Casher and No. 2 J.C. Hassenauer) and outside linebacker (No. 1 Christian Miller and No. 2 Rashaan Evans), plus at LSU (with No. 1 and 3 wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) and Florida (with No. 2 and 3 defensive tackles Gerald Willis and Thomas Holley).

Clemson was the other school to accomplish the feat in 2014, signing No. 2 and 3 receiving tight ends Milan Richard and Cannon Smith.

In some of these cases -- particularly at LSU, which lost the vast majority of its receiving production from 2013 -- expectations are high that the star signees can immediately become valuable contributors as true freshmen. The Tigers have multiple alternatives at receiver, including Travin Dural and John Diarse, but Dupre and Quinn might rank among the leading contenders for playing time.

Judging by the long list of Freshman All-America and freshman all-conference honors won by those who previously signed as part of such a dynamic duo, perhaps it's not such a long shot that at least one of the newcomers will make a similar instant impact.

2006

Safety | USC
No. 2 Taylor Mays, No. 3 Antwine Perez

Mays appeared in all 13 games -- starting the last 12 at free safety after Josh Pinkard suffered a season-ending injury in the opener -- in 2006 and led the Trojans with three interceptions. Mays was fifth on the team with 62 tackles and tied for second with six passes defended, ending the season as Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year and as a member of multiple Freshman All-America teams. Perez played in seven games and recorded three tackles.

2007

Center | Auburn
No. 1 Ryan Pugh, No. 3 Chaz Ramsey

Pugh started six of Auburn's final nine games at left tackle and appeared in eight games overall. He also backed up Jason Bosley at center and earned Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team honors after the season. Like Pugh, Ramsey appeared for the first time in Week 4 and went on to start nine of the Tigers' last 10 games at right guard. He also made the Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team.

Running back | USC
No. 1 Joe McKnight, No. 2 Marc Tyler

McKnight played in all 13 games in 2007, ranked third on the team with 540 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns. He also caught 23 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown and served as the Trojans' primary punt returner, with his 8.4 yards per return helping him earn a All-Pac-10 honorable mention nod. Tyler redshirted in 2007 while recuperating from a high school leg injury.

2008

Inside linebacker | Ohio State
No. 1 Etienne Sabino, No. 2 Andrew Sweat

Sabino played in all 13 games and notched six tackles. He notched the only touchdown in the Buckeyes' 16-3 win against Purdue by returning a blocked punt 20 yards for a score. Sweat appeared in the last nine games and recorded five tackles, also contributing mostly on special teams.

Outside linebacker | Miami
No. 1 Arthur Brown, No. 2 Sean Spence, No. 3 Ramon Buchanan

Not only did Miami sign ESPN's top three outside linebacker prospects in 2008, it also signed No. 5 Jordan Futch. That's an outstanding haul for one year. At any rate, Spence emerged as the key member of this group from the get-go, ranking third on the team with 65 tackles and leading the Hurricanes with 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2008. He was ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and made multiple Freshman All-America teams. Brown (who later transferred to Kansas State) played in 11 games as a freshman, notching four tackles and shifting from outside to inside linebacker. Buchanan had six tackles in nine games, playing mostly on special teams and also contributing at safety and linebacker.

Offensive tackle | Ohio State
No. 2 Michael Brewster, No. 3 J.B. Shugarts

Brewster played in 12 of the Buckeyes' 13 games in 2008 and started the last 10 at center, earning Freshman All-America honors in the process. Shugarts appeared in seven games at offensive tackle and missed six other games with a shoulder surgery that required offseason surgery.

Safety | Florida
No. 1 Will Hill, No. 2 Dee Finley

Hill played in 13 games and ranked sixth on the team with 48 tackles. He also picked off two passes and notched 1.5 sacks. He made the SEC All-Freshman team and led the Gators with 22 tackles on special teams. Finley did not qualify academically and spent the 2008 season at Milford Academy prep school. He eventually enrolled at Florida and shifted from safety to linebacker, but transferred away from Gainesville in 2011.

2009

Safety | South Carolina
No. 2 Stephon Gilmore, No. 3 DeVonte Holloman

Early enrollee Gilmore started all 13 games at cornerback, ranking fifth on the team with 56 tackles. He tied for the team lead with nine passes defended and ranked second with eight pass breakups, adding six tackles for a loss, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and an interception. The Freshman All-SEC and Freshman All-America honoree also averaged 10.1 yards per return as a punt return man. Another early enrollee, Hollomon also played in every game, notching 30 tackles, an interception (which he returned 54 yards against rival Clemson) and a tackle for a loss.

2010

Athlete | Florida
No. 1 Ronald Powell, No. 2 Matt Elam

Powell played in 13 games at strongside linebacker and recorded 25 tackles, three tackles for a loss and a sack en route to winning Freshman All-SEC honors. Elam also played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams and at defensive back, and notched 22 tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack.

Defensive tackle | Florida
No. 1 Dominique Easley, No. 3 Sharrif Floyd

Easley recorded four tackles in six games. Floyd played in all 13 games, earning Coaches' Freshman All-SEC honors by making 23 tackles and 6.5 tackles for a loss.

Wide receiver | Texas
No. 2 Mike Davis, No. 3 Darius White

Davis ranked second on the team with 478 receiving yards and 47 receptions (a record for a Texas freshman). He became one of only three receivers in Longhorns history to post multiple 100-yard games as a freshman. White appeared in 10 games in 2010, but caught just one pass for 5 yards and eventually transferred to Missouri after two seasons, citing a need for a fresh start.

2011

Athlete | Oregon
No. 1 De'Anthony Thomas, No. 2 Devon Blackmon

The speedy Thomas earned Pac-12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year honors and was named an All-Pac-12 kick returner and a Freshman All-American. He was the only player in the nation to post at least 400 yards rushing, receiving and kick returning in 2011, ranking as the Ducks' second-leading receiver (595 yards on 46 catches) and third-leading rusher (608 yards and seven touchdowns). His 983 kickoff return yards ranked second in school history. Blackmon redshirted in 2011 and appeared in two games in 2012 before announcing his plan to transfer. He played at Riverside City College before signing with BYU as a juco transfer in 2014.

2012

Defensive end | Florida State
No. 1 Mario Edwards, No. 3 Chris Casher

Edwards became the only freshman to start all season for a loaded FSU defense when he replaced the injured Tank Carradine in the ACC Championship Game. He also started in the Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois. In all, Edwards finished the season with 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Casher played in two early games before suffering a season-ending injury and taking a redshirt in 2012.

2013

Offensive guard | Michigan
No. 2 David Dawson, No. 3 Patrick Kugler

Dawson and Kugler both redshirted in 2013. Dawson practiced during the spring at left guard and left tackle, while Kugler is among the candidates to start at center this fall.

Offensive tackle | Ole Miss
No. 1 Laremy Tunsil, No. 3 Austin Golson

Tunsil immediately became one of the better offensive tackles in the SEC, earning second-team All-SEC and Freshman All-America honors in 2013. He played in 12 games and started nine at left tackle, making him one of only two true full-time freshman starters at the position in the FBS. Tunsil allowed just one sack all season. Golson played in 12 games, mostly at guard, before missing the Rebels' bowl game because of shoulder surgery. He transferred to Auburn this summer, citing a family illness as the reason he wanted to move closer to his Alabama home.

Safety | USC
No. 1 Su'a Cravens, No. 3 Leon McQuay III

A 2013 early enrollee, Cravens started 13 games at strong safety, ranked eighth on the team with 52 tackles and tied for second with four interceptions. He made multiple Freshman All-America teams and earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod after the season. McQuay played in all 14 games, picked off one pass and recorded 19 tackles.

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