Entering his junior season, Justin Willis already holds SMU's all-time record with 51 touchdown passes. Last year, in which he was voted All-Conference USA honorable mention, he produced four of the top 15 most prolific total yardage games in school history. He's started 22 of the Mustangs' 24 games over the last two years. He can make dramatic, dazzling plays with his arm or his feet. He is by far the team's most athletic, most experienced quarterback and arguably its best overall player.
But in Dallas' most confusing outcome this side of Jenny the elephant staying put, Willis will not start when SMU opens the 2008 season Friday night at Rice. Instead, as No. 3 on the depth chart behind two true freshmen quarterbacks, he'll be on the sideline, holding a clipboard and pondering a transfer.
While you scratch your head trying to remember the last time an incumbent quarterback with a record-setting pedigree was dethroned by two 18-year-olds, realize that SMU new head coach June Jones isn't afraid to gamble and would kick Britney Spears out of bed in favor of her little sister, Jamie Lynn. Sure Willis' success is tempered by the disciplinary warts of two suspensions (for fighting in '06 and missing team functions in February) and a 7-15 career record, but the two kids who somehow beat him out have yet to throw a pass beyond the 12th grade.
"Justin is struggling right now, for whatever reason, the last couple of weeks," Jones said in announcing his shocking depth chart last week. "We're going in another direction right now."
Despite alumni wet-dreaming about the marriage of Willis' skills and Jones' system and the impending honeymoon of the school's first bowl berth since 1984—season tickets are up 5,000 from last year—the coach made a complicated, controversial decision aimed at long-term success rather than instant gratification. With Willis on the bench and Bo Levi Mitchell and Braden Smith taking snaps and lumps, don't expect Jones to perform the highly anticipated Miracle on Mockingbird.
At least not this year.
In his first year at the University of Hawaii, Jones engineered the biggest one-year turnaround in NCAA history, leading a winless team in '98 to a 9-4 record in '99. His run 'n' shoot offense shattered school records and thrust quarterbacks Timmy Chang and then Colt Brennan into college football's national spotlight. If Jones can make Brennan a Heisman Trophy finalist just imagine what he can do with Willis.
A couple of weeks ago, when I still thought Jones would utilize Willis to orchestrate a Hawaii-like metamorphosis, I went to SMU's Ford Stadium to sit down with the quarterback.
First things first.
Me: "Even though you've got a new coach and a new system and you missed spring drills while suspended, you do expect to be the starting quarterback, right?"
Him: "In my mind I'm the starter. I should be the starter. No doubt. I put my full trust in Coach Jones. It's impossible to look at his results with quarterbacks and not trust him."
Jones, of course, has shocked college football before. Just eight months ago he left a 12-1 Hawaii team and Waikiki Beach for Hell on the Hilltop. Last January the Warriors played in the Sugar Bowl. The last five years the Mustangs have a combined 15 wins, going 1-11 last season.
The benching and burying of Willis is perhaps even more jarring.
Maybe it's his play.
Though Willis, 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, set an SMU single-season record with 3,643 total yards last year, he did it by often coloring outside the lines. Willis, who starred at Denton's Ryan High School, is a young Donovan McNabb. Not the prettiest of spirals. Not flawless decisions. But, in the end, enough creativity and agility to consistently flummox defenses.
"In this system I won't be running as much, but there's still room for me to be an athlete," Willis told me. "The other day the light bulb really went on for me. Our offense should have the best of both worlds. The football part is coming. I just need to focus on getting to a point where Coach Jones and my teammates put their trust in me. It's going to take time. I've got to remember I'm the one who broke that trust in the first place."
The real problem is that Jones' run 'n' shoot cherishes accuracy over athleticism and execution over experience. In an offense founded on pre-snap reads; short drops; and crisp, bull's-eye throws, Willis simply fell behind Mitchell, who last year led Katy to the Division II state title, and Smith, who starred at Rockwall High School.
Jones, whose Hawaii offense led the planet in scoring the past two seasons, is committed to fitting a quarterback to his system, not vice-versa.
"My gut instincts about quarterbacks are usually pretty good," Jones said. "Now, will Levi play as good in our first game as Justin would've? Probably not. But we'll go with him the first three games and see where we are. We're not going to push the panic button."
Willis initially reacted to the demotion last week with class and dignity, saying he didn't plan on transferring. But for a guy who's overcome two suspensions, a serious hand injury and even a stalker, sitting the bench after spending part of the summer hobnobbing and practicing with NFL stars Pacman Jones and Antonio Cromartie up at Deion Sanders' spread in Prosper has to be a most humbling spoonful of hurt.
Maybe it's his personality.
Spend a half-hour with Willis and it's obvious he's a bright, polite kid. But team leaders who bounce on and off the roster because of rules violations apparently aren't part of Jones' grand plan.
"When I became the starting quarterback I didn't know the first thing about talking to 22-year-olds, much less leading them," said Willis, dressed in a black T-shirt and shorts adorned with a silver "#16" necklace. "Mentally I just wasn't prepared to handle some situations."
For example, a stalker.
In October 2006 Willis was suspended from the team for a week after punching a male student during an off-campus altercation. Willis said the student, whom he didn't know, constantly showed up at school and team functions and wrote about their supposed "relationship" in Internet forums. Willis said he apprised then-coach Phil Bennett of the situation, but no action was taken.
"I had nothing to do with that guy but he was out there slandering my name and following me around," Willis said. "Coach Bennett didn't think it was serious enough to address, so unfortunately I had to take things into my own hands. It wasn't the right thing to do, but I hope people understand why I had to do it. It worked. The guy finally stopped bugging me."
Last February Willis was suspended again, this time by Jones for faltering academics and skipping team functions. He missed spring practice—back when Mitchell and Smith were preparing for their proms—at a time when he should've been cementing his role as No. 1 quarterback and team leader.
He was reinstated in May, but may never be fully back.
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"It absolutely killed me," Willis said. "I'd sneak in the stadium during the spring and watch them practice without me."
Now, in a demotion that shocks him, SMU fans and likely all of college football, Willis has to watch his team play without him.