Like many college seniors, Jeff Wills has been sending out his resume and trying to impress recruiters. And just like his classmates, Wills's job search is an uphill battle. It's a tough market after all: There's a chance his industry won't be around in a few months.
But the fact that his potential industry, professional football, is locked in a legal battle that threatens the 2011-2012 season isn't the biggest hurdle for Wills. The Brooklyn native has played right tackle at the University of Minnesota for the past two years and fills doorways with his mammoth six-foot-seven-plus, 335-pound frame. And yet even as the largest player in the 2011 NFL Draft (he sports a reportedly record wingspan with arm lengths of 36.15 inches), his job prospects are unclear. Just as Cam Newton, Marcell Dareus, Von Miller, and other blue-chippers are assured their names will be called tonight, Wills knows his won't be. And probably not tomorrow either. Rather, he'll be crossing his massive fingers — his hands span 11.63 inches — hoping that he'll be selected on the third and final day of the NFL Draft.
And like most late-rounders, that's when the real attempt to embark on a career in the NFL begins.
"If I'm the first pick in the first round, or if I'm the last name called, I'm blessed to have the opportunity to showcase my talent," Wills tells BroBible. "Everybody in the draft, they are all waiting for that opportunity to show what they are doing — just to work hard and see how they stack up against NFL talent."
While starting every game for the past two seasons at Minnesota (and playing in every offensive snap), Wills faced his share of top NFL-caliber prospects. In the Big Ten alone in 2010, Wills faced projected first-round defensive ends J.J. Watts (Wisconsin), Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue), and Cameron Heyward (Ohio State). And over the course of the entire season, Wills didn't allow a single sack. So how does the biggest player in the draft, from a BCS conference university, who didn't allow a single sack, not have more buzz among analysts? Football minds like agent Bobby Brown (a Notre Dame and Cleveland Brown receiver) and football lifer Jim Garrett have several theories. Brown believes Minnesota's poor win/loss record may have resulted in scouts turning their attention to other prospects. Garrett adds that it's natural for the average NFL scout to be drawn to the spectacular play instead of to the player who is solid day in and day out. But both agree that Wills still carries with him a huge NFL red flag: His weight.
"Jeff was over 400 pounds at one point," Brown says. "People still said he moved so well for his size, but that caveat, 'for his size,' that can be the difference if he makes it or not."
Since Wills played at Brooklyn's Campus Magnet High School, he has struggled with his weight. His then– head coach Eric Barnett spotted the physical talent hiding behind the girth and asked his 400-pound tackle a serious question, point-blank: "Do you want to play D-II football, or do you want to be a Division-I player?" Wills picked the latter and in preparation for that goal soon enrolled at Lackawanna Junior College, a choice Wills considers the most instrumental decision of his life.
While at Lackawanna, Wills started to establish himself as one of the most intriguing JuCo prospects in the country. His rare combination of size, strength, and aggression earned him an athletic scholarship to Minnesota, where his football maturation began on the field and where he continued to fight against his own physique off of it.
Brown explains that coming late to a D-I program and not getting four years in a college-level weight program hurt Wills' development. But as Wills began to focus on his NFL dream, he realized that a body that scouts couldn't ignore was in reach. ("You can't teach 6-7 and 350 pounds," Brown says. "At a point it's a simple law of physics.")
So Wills, upon the urging of his brother, headed to DeFranco's Training System in Wyckoff, New Jersey, upon graduating early. "I've been able to work out with special attention, and focus on losing weight and gaining strength," Wills explains. "When I left Minnesota I was about 355-360, and now I am around 335. When I went back to school they said, 'What happened to you?' People that saw me at Lackawanna, I walk by them and they don't recognize me. I've come a long way, but there is still have a long way to go."
At DeFranco's, Wills has worked alongside the Jets' Antonio Cromartie, the Texans' Brian Cushing, and the Giants' David Diehl. Leading up this weekend's draft, Wills has reportedly impressed a handful of teams, including the hometown Giants and Jets, as well as the Jaguars, Chiefs, and Colts. Using his improved body as his claim to a contract, Wills has convinced NFL personnel that he is serious about his career, and is putting in the hard work (including five days a week at DeFranco's) to make, and stay in, the league. He has also seriously impressed his trainer.