Willis ranks among elite, says his prep coach

WITH BOTH STARTING safeties graduating, Washington State was in need of a 2005 recruit with the ability to step in right away. Enter <b>Michael Willis</b>, a holdover from the 2004 class who enrolled in classes at WSU this week. During his high school career in Tacoma, the two-time Narrows League Bay Division MVP was known to dominate games on both sides of the ball. In 34 years of coaching, Lincoln High head man <b>Dick Zatkovich</b> says he's never seen anyone quite like Willis.

He calls Michael Willis the hardest hitting, most athletic football player he's either coached or coached against. If you know the Narrows League, that's a mighty fine compliment. And if you know a former player of coach Zatkovich's by the name of Reggie Williams, the scope of the coach's comment takes on added dimension.

Willis turned the big hit into an art form during his prep career. If the chips were down, he'd quietly sidle up to Zatkovich and tell him not to worry, that he'd go out and take care of things. Then he'd do exactly that, oftentimes in spectacular fashion.

"That's just the way Michael is," says Zatkovich, who will be honored later this month by the Washington State Coaches Association for his 142 career victories. "He's just a tremendous athlete. When he plays football, you will notice him. He just won't blend in. He'll do things that you'll just say 'Wow.'"

One such 'wow' instance was perhaps the hit of Willis' prep career. The 6-3, 215-pound All-Stater set the tone on the first play from scrimmage against Capital in 2003. The hit was so devastating, Zatkovich remembers it in vivid detail.

"He knocked the helmet off the kid -- but he knocked the ear pads out of the helmet too. And he absolutely dominated the game from there on in. One of the hardest high school hits I've ever seen. He'll take on a lead blocker and knock him down -- he's a fearless football player that plays hard and loves to play the game."

DURING HIS TIME at Lincoln, Willis would see how many big hits a week he could put on people.

"He's a linebacker playing defensive back," said Zatkovich. "He loves contact."

Willis has very good speed -- but most noticeably, he has great closing speed. He also has great instincts. The combination, says Zatkovich, is an uncommon intimidation factor.

ZATKOVICH HAS COACHED a bevy of players who have gone on to Division I football, including Williams, the former Washington star and current Jacksonville Jaguars receiver.

Willis and Williams compare very favorably in Zatkovich's eyes.

"Athletically, Michael is as gifted, if not more athletic. Reggie is a little bit taller, a little bit faster. But Michael possesses at least, if not greater, athletic ability."

"In looking at the best football players I've ever had the opportunity to coach, those two are right at the top. Michael was more physical but both of them were just fantastic athletes, fantastic football players."

Willis figures to begin his Cougar career on the defensive side, given his big-play ability and the Cougs' immediate needs at safety. Willis undeniably has the talent and speed to play on offense -- it won't come as a surprise if at some point during his career, he makes a debut there as well.

ON OFFENSE at Lincoln, Zatkovich utilized Willis all over the field -- split out wide, in the slot, out on short screens. They even ran him out of the tailback spot on occasion.

"He would have been a fantastic tailback," said Zatkovich, who coached Lakes to the Class 3A state title in 1997.

Defenses keyed on Willis when Lincoln had the ball -- knowing they had to be aware of where he was at all times. If he could do it over again, coach Zatkovich even said he would have had his offensive coordinator line up Willis at tight end on occasion and run a few end-arounds, just to give Willis even more opportunities to break a long one.

"We just wanted to make a long handoff with him. And sometimes when the game depended on it, we'd throw the ball up and he'd go up and get it. Very athletic kid."

There are a lot of guys playing Division I football whose athleticism sets them apart. But there aren't many who have the athleticism to walk onto the hardcourt and, ho-hum, win a slam dunk contest with a 360 jam.

FOR MICHAEL WILLIS, it's been a journey from Tacoma to Pullman. He told CF.C at the time he qualified he was not satisfied simply to make it in, he wanted to excel in both the classroom and on the field at WSU -- a hope shared by his high school coach. Zatkovich was thrilled when he heard the news Willis would begin the next stage of his football career at Washington State.

"I'm pleased for Michael's sake. One thing I've always wanted to do was to see Michael be successful. I was very pleased, very happy for him. He could have taken the easy route, but now it looks like he's on the right path."

One of the most respected high school coaches in the state of Washington, Dick Zatkovich's teams have won a state championship and six league titles, having earned their way into the playoffs 12 times. He's compiled a 70 percent winning percentage over his career.

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