Senior wide receiver Corey Willis wants everyone to know that this season for Central Michigan will have a different feel than last year.
“Everything as far as the way we are coming out and the energy in the stadium is going to be different,” he said this past Sunday for CMU Media Day. “I think that CMU has a great tradition of having plenty of fans in the stands and I think that will never change.”
Willis, a Holland, Michigan native, enters his final year with the Chippewas more excited than ever thanks to the new spread scheme implemented by new offensive coordinator Chris Ostrowsky.
It’s an offense that fits him well, having entered fall camp this month in good enough shape to keep up with the fast tempo. Mark Chapman is the other senior wideout returning, who finished second last year in catches (44) and receiving yards (592).
“At the end of the day we are trying to play eight and nine deep receiver-wise so if that means that the younger guys are getting some my catches, then so be it,” Willis said. “I’m going to be fresh and ready to go every time I go in there.”
Central Michigan head coach John Bonamego has said before that the offense relied heavily on the passing game last season, as former starter Cooper Rush finished with 12,891 career passing yards, 14 yards short of breaking Dan LeFevour’s record.
That meant the Chippewas were dead last in the Mid-American Conference in total rushing, allowing Rush to average 21 passes per game and for Willis’ production to breakout, leading the team in receptions (72), yards (1,091) and touchdowns (9).
Willis earned CMU’s Offensive Player of the Year award and was one of four pass catchers to be named to the All-MAC Second Team, joining Ball State’s KeVonn Mabon, Jon’Vea of Toledo and Akron’s JoJo Natson.
Of course, Willis be most remembered for scoring the winning touchdown against Oklahoma State on a last-second Hail Mary, catching a toss from Jeese Kroll at the nine-yard line and running it in with zero time remaining.
The one weakness in Willis’ game is how his on-the-field performances mirror Central Michigan’s success or failure. Take the 2016 Miami Beach Bowl for example, where he caught just three passes for 63 yards in the 55-10 loss to Tulsa.
The beatdown at Kelly/Shorts Stadium courtesy of Western Michigan last October is another illustration, when Willis caught seven passes for 68 yards. His contributions statistically are pivotal when vying for wins.
The Chippewas need Willis to have outings similar to the Ohio game last season where he had career-high eight catches for 109 yards, or the six receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown in the win over Ball State. Willis has the ability to make everyone around him better by simply being a poster child for strong showings.
When senior tight end Tyler Conklin went down with a broken feet, Central Michigan had no issue adding another level of expectation on Willis in the passing game to make up for the missing weapon.
Willis was going to the number one option regardless if Conklin was healthy or not, but defenses will now render a larger emphasis in covering him. Conklin, who finished third on the team in receptions (42) and receiving yards (560), has no timetable for a return, which means the production he put forth last season will imply carry over to Willis.
Having played with a right-handed quarterback the last three years, Willis said the adjustment to left-handed graduate transfer Shane Morris, the former University of Michigan quarterback, has required some getting used to.
There’s also the issue of not officially knowing who’ll be the full-time starter this season following the season opener Aug. 31 at home. Bonamego announced both Morris and redshirt freshman Tony Poljan will receive equal reps with the first-team against Rhode Island.
In the past, Willis said he felt confident knowing that Cooper Rush, now an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys, would be the leader heading into camp. Now, he has to find rhythm and gel with two different individuals with different personalities.
“In the spring, I got really confident with Tony (Poljan) and in the summer, I’ve been working with Shane (Morris) so I think either guy can come in and we can have a prolific offense,” he said.
Even though Poljan, a former Minnesota commit, hasn’t played in an actual game, Willis did team up with the Lansing Catholic alum last April during the Spring Game. The pair connected on a 59-yard pass the second play of the scrimmage.
It’s obvious that Willis has found chemistry with Poljan before the summer began and it’ll show if Morris is resorted to a backup role once again. Having experienced receivers like Willis could do wonders for Poljan in getting acclimated to the college game.
With Morris, Willis can team up with another veteran quarterback who spent four years residing in the Big Ten Conference.
Willis poses a big threat mentality and will be a catalyst to how successful the transition to the spread will be for the Chippewas, whether or not his numbers rise from last year.
Willis was also named to the Biletnikoff Award Preseason Watch List last month, given to the most outstanding wide receiver in the country. He’s one of five players from the MAC added to list, including senior Sergio Bailey II of Eastern Michigan.