He did wind up in the play-by-play, sort of, just not the way he wanted.
A gunner on the kickoff, meaning his only responsibility is finding the ball carrier, Willis got roughly three feet from Hoosiers returner Shane Wynn when Wynn cut inside, resulting in another Badgers defender diving at the ball carrier and rolling over Willis' ankle.
"It got twisted and popped weird," Willis said. "I really couldn't feel it after that."
The 6-2 receiver from Brookfield Academy had made strong strides in fall camp that the UW coaches made him one of only six true freshmen to contribute on the team. Although he has yet to catch a pass, Willis had contributed two tackles on special teams and unleashed a wry smile when asked what his frustration level was.
"I think about it like I have to restart everything over," Willis said. "Once you get hurt, other people step up and people get the reps that you don't get. Pretty much for me, it's rebuilding the foundations that I was already on my way to solidifying."
The text messages Willis got after the game suggest that he broke his ankle. While most players shy away from watching replays of the injury, Willis immediately went to the film to see how bad his sprained ankle looked.
"It looked pretty bad," Willis said.
Willis didn't travel for the last two road games and was first cleared to practice last Tuesday, going through 75 percent of the work and doing cardio the rest of the time to strengthen his leg in order to get back the sub 4.4 40-yard dash speed that opened the eyes of the UW coaches during high school summer camp.
It's also made watching Wisconsin's two road losses all that more painful, especially with problems occurring on Willis' special teams units
"I feel like if I haven't gotten hurt I would have been able to contribute in some way," Willis said. "Who knows if we would have won or not but I felt a sense of guilt sitting on the couch. I know it's not my fault that I got hurt, but I know I could have contributed if I was on the field in some kind of way. The coaches believed in me, which gave me confidence in myself. When I got hurt, that diminished in myself."
Willis doesn't deny that this season has been a growing experience. During one practice where Willis dropped a couple passes, Bielema beat up Willis and said, ‘if you keep making plays like that, you'll be a DB before you know it.' Willis caught every pass his way before he was injured.
"I've grown as a receiver," Willis said. "I had trouble stopping and starting because I was a sprinter in high school where you just run straight and don't stop. Transitioning from that, the stopping and starting, route running, keeping a lot center of gravity and redirections, and still trying to go full speed, I've improve on that a lot."
Not surprising, Willis has latched on to senior wide receiver Nick Toon, who had to go through some of the same transitions as a track athlete coming out of high school. The difference is Toon has a redshirt season to do it, meaning Willis is already ahead of the curve.
"He helped out this summer a lot with redirection and keeping my toes under my shoulder," Willis said. "He's done a lot for me."
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