Redshirt senior linebacker Dameon Willis Jr. walked into the team room at Memorial Stadium on Tuesday with a wide-eyed expression on his face, bumping fists with everybody in the room.
Exuberance oozed out with every pound of his knuckles.
Fittingly, when asked if he’s going to approach things differently for his fifth season than in years past with the IU football team, only one thing came to his mind — “a whole lot of enthusiasm.”
“You have got to have enthusiasm with this group,” Willis said. “We’re young, but we have a lot of energy. So it’s about showing these guys that anything is easier with a little bit of enthusiasm. Definitely enthusiasm, day in and day out, yelling all day, shouting stuff. They probably look at me as a wild man, but they’ll see the finished product at the end.”
Bringing enthusiasm will be important for Willis as he enters the 2018 season as the elder statesman among IU's unproven linebacking corps.
He’ll now be looked at as a leader after playing behind the likes of former IU linebackers Tegray Scales, Chris Covington, Marcus Oliver and T.J. Simmons during his past four years in Bloomington.
“There are plenty of guys that are going to contribute,” Willis said. “As a guy that can play the bridge to help those guys continue to learn how we play linebacker here, it’s going to be important to bring those guys along with urgency.”
Last season, it seemed as if Willis’ time at IU was through after participating in Senior Day festivities before the Hoosiers’ final home game against Rutgers on Nov. 18.
However, IU Coach Tom Allen announced at the annual Huber’s Orchard and Winery event May 30 that Willis would be using his final year of eligibility to come back for a fifth season.
Willis’ wisdom could go a long way for an inexperienced group featuring the likes of senior Michael McGinnis, junior Reakwon Jones and freshmen Mo Burnham and Thomas Allen.
"He was kind of beat up and now he's had some time to heal, he's going to be back with us," Allen said of Willis at Huber’s. "I think that's huge. He was our most experienced linebacker coming back.”
Willis said he made the decision to return about a week after graduation. Now, with his body feeling recuperated and his degree in media secured, he said he’s ready to focus on football and building some comradery with his younger teammates.
“After graduation, finishing one goal, I had my opportunity to really settle in and focus on the next goal and not really have any regrets,” Willis said.
Although his experience will be important, it won’t be the only thing Willis can bring to the Hoosiers in 2018.
He’s been a steady contributor as a backup over the past few years.
Last season, Willis recorded 27 tackles, including a career-high seven tackles in a start against then-No.18 Michigan State
In the season prior, he had 22 total tackles, including the first start of his career in the Foster Farms Bowl against Utah, where he recorded four tackles.
Even dating back to his redshirt freshman season in 2015, he was consistent, posting 16 tackles with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
However, this season could mark a much larger role than he’s been used to in the past.
“You’re as strong as your weakest link,” Willis said. “With freshmen and young guys, it’s very important to understand that leading those guys is the main factor and that’s the most important thing. So, as the leader of the group, it’s my job to make sure everybody is ready.”
Willis’ return could pay huge dividends for a Hoosier defense that lost a number of veteran contributors from last season.
Even though it might take more than a few fist bumps and some shouting during practice, he might have just what it takes to help lead his younger teammates by example.
As “one of the last Mohicans,” as he puts it, Willis said he just wants to try to finish what he and his fellow classmates set out to accomplish back in his first year at IU in 2014.
“We had a goal of changing the culture here,” Willis said. “I think this year is the turning year and I want to be a part of that.”
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