Rookie undrafted free agent receiver Damion Willis had perhaps the strongest preseason of any Bengal.
CINCINNATI — All Damion Willis ever wanted was a chance.
“Just give me a shot,” Willis said.
On the next play, Willis leaped over Giants starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins and came down with the 33-yard completion. The catch virtually cemented an opportunity that seemed improbable a few weeks ago.
When training camp started, Willis was an undrafted free agent from a small town in Mississippi who started his college career at a junior college. Now, he’ll be one of Cincinnati’s starters in the season opener against Seattle.
The way the 6-foot-3, 204-pound Willis attacks the ball explains how he had arguably the best training camp of anyone on the team.
“When the ball is in the air, he goes up and catches it,” Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd said. “He doesn’t wait. He goes and gets it. That’s a trait every receiver needs to have.”
His journey from high school to one of the top spots on the Bengals’ depth chart explains why Willis is more comfortable seizing opportunities than waiting for them to come to him.
Willis started to hone his ball skills during his sophomore year at Southeast Lauderdale, a mid-sized high school in Meridian, Mississippi. The day after he told his position coach, Centel Truman, that he wanted to be a wide receiver who played instead of a backup quarterback who drank water on the sidelines, Truman told him to come to the school at 9 on a Saturday morning.
“He was there waiting on me,” Truman said.
Willis was a three-year starter and had a handful of offers from Football Bowl Subdivision programs. Two notable ones fell through.
Right before Willis was scheduled to take a weekend trip to the University of Cincinnati, Khalil LeWIS committed to the Bearcats and snagged the spot. LeWIS ended up leading UC in receiving yards during his final three years.
Then right before signing day in 2015, the University of Mississippi had one scholarship spot between two receivers — Willis and top ESPN 300 recruit DaMarkus Lodge. Lodge picked up a Rebels hat on national signing day and signed with the SEC school. Ole Miss staffers told Willis to go to East Mississippi Community College, where they’d pluck him eventually when a spot opened up.
That never happened. Willis instead spent two years at the junior college made famous by the Netflix docuseries “Last Chance U.”
Willis said it ended up being the best thing that happened to him.
“I’m not going to say I was soft coming out of high school, but it made me a tougher person,” Willis said earlier this week.
He signed with Troy, which also recruited him out of high school. In 2018, he led the team in receiving yards (876) and touchdowns (10) and was named a first-team all-conference selection.
Even though he wasn’t projected as a draft pick, Willis made a strong impression on the Bengals’ coaching staff.
Willis was one of five players Bengals wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell really wanted. During a pre-draft meeting, Cincinnati assistant quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher taught Willis a small portion of the offense and Willis taught it back to the assistants with ease.
“Just watching it, I said, ‘OK, this kid could be a really good learner and be able to play at an early time,’” Bicknell said.
It ended up being even earlier than Willis imagined. When he arrived in training camp, becoming a starter was far down the list. First he just wanted to be one of the 53 players to survive Saturday’s roster cuts. Then he wanted to receive some playing time before the regular season.
But once starting wide receiver A.J. Green suffered an ankle injury during one of the first drills of training camp, Willis and the other wide receivers had a chance to shorten that timeline. Bicknell said Willis was consistently productive throughout training camp. After the third game of the preseason, first-year coach Zac Taylor decided he’d seen enough to declare Willis the Week 1 starter and hold him out of Thursday’s exhibition finale against the Indianapolis Colts. Taylor said undrafted receivers such as Willis often flutter between flashy plays and mistakes.
“That hasn’t been the case with him,” Taylor said. “He’s continued to make plays every time we called his number.”
It turns out Willis didn’t need to ask for the ball before his big 33-yard reception. His strong preseason earned him the chance. Even before he made the request, Taylor told Finley to throw the ball to Willis on the first play of the drive.
Willis had taken advantage of so many opportunities that one was finally headed his way. And when he made the catch over Jenkins, a former Pro Bowler, it did more than bolster the coaching staff’s decision.
“Once you see him go against those elite guys and do the same thing, that’s when you know, ‘OK, you’ve got a baller,'” Boyd said.
Even though his starting spot is secure, Willis is going to keep attacking the ball when it comes his way. He’s anxious for his first catch in a regular-season game, “when it actually means something,” to replicate the success he had against Jenkins and others throughout the preseason.
“I was very confident,” Willis said of the catch. “I was still trying to prove myself. Well, I still am trying to prove myself to the coaches that I belong here.”