Franklin Central H.S. Coach Lance Scheib wasn't so sure Darius Willis was where he needed to be last season.
While the 6-0, 210-pound Willis had all the physical tools to be a special player in the offensive backfield, Scheib also knew there was more to the tailback position than running over or away from would-be tacklers. In just his first year with the Franklin Central program last fall, Willis went through some growing pains early on.
"Through the first six games I kind of said, ‘he's a great athlete, but I'm not sure he's a running back,'" Scheib said.
But that changed soon afterwards. Willis put together a couple of huge games in the season's closing weeks, producing games of 315 yards, 290 yards and 270 yards to erase any doubt about where he should be positioned on the football field.
Now, Willis has emerged as one of the state's best players in the 2007 recruiting class and one of the elite tailbacks in the Midwest. Coming off a 231-carry, 1,277-yard, 15-touchdown junior season, Willis combines excellent size with 4.3 speed in the 40. He's also still relatively "raw," suggesting his best days are still ahead of him.
"He's a diamond in the rough," Scheib said. "In every aspect of the game, he can get better. I'd say in none of the aspects other than courage is he near where he's going to be. I think the more film we watch, the more he realizes he has a ways to go."
While he might be a diamond in the rough, he's still very well known in recruiting circles. Indiana, Purdue, Illinois and Kentucky have already offered scholarships, while Ohio State, Notre Dame and Penn State, among others, have also shown interest. He attended junior days at IU, Purdue, Ohio State, Illinois and Notre Dame, and his recruitment figures to only intensify from here on out.
With that said, Indiana has been more than just an also-ran when it comes to Willis. Indications are the Hoosiers have positioned themselves to have an excellent chance at eventually landing the talented tailback.
"Indiana has done the best job of recruiting up to this point," Scheib said. "Billy Lynch has done a phenomenal job of showing the compassion and the love that Indiana has for Darius."
Lynch's work isn't the only thing working in the Hoosiers' favor. Scheib admits he's always encouraged his players to stay in-state, and that he'd like nothing more than to see Willis wind up at either Indiana or Purdue. Indiana's business school could also play big role in IU's chances of securing a commitment as well.
"When I sat down with Darius, I said, ‘what's your number one criteria to what you want to do?" Scheib said. "He said, ‘I want to go into business, so I'm going to the best business school I can, and football is second.' I said, ‘great – IU is a great fit, a great place for you.'
"With Darius, he has a great appreciation and adores IU a lot. Everything he's done with IU has been really positive. He walks away very impressed, very happy, he loves Coach Hep, and it's worked out really well. I think it's going to be interesting when things unfold, but I know IU is right at the top right now."
Scheib also knows, though, that things will likely intensify as the summer months draw near. Willis has expressed an interest in waiting until after his senior season to make his college choice, but his high school coach would rather see him go another route.
"I'm going to encourage him to do it before (the season)," Scheib said. "I think what's going to happen is he's going to get bombarded so much I think it's going to get old real quick for him.
"I also don't think he's saying, ‘I'm looking for USC or Florida.' He wants to stay around here. If he finds that fit and feels comfortable and sees enough for him to commit before the season is over, I think (committing early) is a real possibility."
Scheib believes that whoever winds up getting Willis is going to get a player with not only special skills, but some special characteristics as well. While he's in the spotlight as one of the state's best players, Scheib said his standout makes his job easier thanks to his approach and work ethic.
"His overall strength is he has incredible character, probably as good as I've had in a long time for the type of athlete he is," Scheib said. "He works very hard, he's very unselfish, and very unassuming. Every now and then you run into those players that don't have a great work ethic – that's what will separate Darius as he gets older and has a better understanding in general, he's only going to get better."
IU Off and Running for Willis
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