Jackson Willis has yet to carry the football in a varsity game that was not already decided, but Prairie Ridge coaches already have stories.
Wolves coach Chris Schremp grins as he says how Willis, at 175 pounds, can squat more weight than anyone else on the team. Later, Willis corrected the coach, saying that linemen Khan Dang (who weighs 250 pounds) and Matthew Farstead (278) both squatted more than his own best of 435 pounds.
“Here’s a story,” offensive coordinator Joe Terhaar said. “He comes to practice, sick as a dog, two or three days. He’s got bronchitis, and I know it. He’s coughing up a lung, puking all over the place. I have to tell him to go home. (Quarterback) Samson (Evans) is like, ‘Coach, he’s going to get us sick.’ I’m like, ‘You’re right. Jackson, I love your effort, but get the heck out of here. Go home and to go sleep.’ ”
The defending Class 6A state champion Wolves are loaded with talent and senior leaders, but fullback is one position they need to replace after graduating Manny Ebirim, a 218-pound battering ram who carried 154 times for 1,040 yards last season.
As football teams across the state began practice Monday, Schremp and Terhaar are confident that Willis, even at about 43 pounds less than Ebirim, will adeptly fill that role.
“I hope I can bring a little more quickness and speed downhill,” Willis said. “I want to be aggressive and not necessarily run people over, but still be physical. I’m really excited to get out there and have fun.”
Jackson’s father, J.D. Willis, finished his career in the Air Force two years ago, bought the Chick-fil-A in Crystal Lake and moved his family to the area from Texas. Jackson quickly was tagged “Texas” by friends and teammates. Terhaar says the military upbringing comes out with Willis the way he speaks to people and approaches football.
“He will do just about anything you ask him,” Terhaar said. “He’s willing to do the little things. He pays attention to detail. Manny was a wrecking ball. He looked like mini-Earl Campbell. Jackson is a tough, tough kid, kind of in the mold of (running back) Zach Gulbransen. They’re similar in their speed and willingness to play violently. He’s going to be a kid who could surprise a lot of people.”
Willis was used at linebacker on the freshman team two years ago, then found his home at fullback at the sophomore level last year.
“I think [the coaches] saw a willingness to get into all the piles and get physical with other people, and be low,” Willis said. “That’s the main aspects of being a fullback.”
Willis’ squat weight jumped exponentially in the past year. He credits workouts with Davis Speed Center trainers Dave Davis, Kevin Brummond and Pat Wenzel for that.
“Last year, my numbers weren’t nearly as high as they were this year,” he said. “Working with them not only made me faster, but strengthened all my muscles.”
Schremp says the Wolves don’t need a prototypical big fullback in their option.
“It’s nice to have somebody who can make a move, make somebody miss and go,” Schremp said. “The plays are a little different based on the fullback you have. We can do some different things with Jackson than we did with Manny. You adjust the offense.”
Willis is ready to take over a vital position for one of the state’s best teams after learning from Ebirim last season.
“Being behind someone as good as Manny was really helpful,” Willis said. “He showed me all the little nuances of how to play fullback. Being in a position with such a good player helped prepare me for this year. It made me more than ready to go.”