Brown: Derrick Willies makes name for himself with actions, not words
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Derrick Willies is a soft-spoken 19-year-old. Iowa's redshirt freshman wide receiver would rather do his talking on the football field.
That's where Willies seems most comfortable: on 100 yards of turf, not surrounded by media members asking questions he politely answers in short sentences.
A budding star fresh off his first career touchdown catch Saturday, Willies didn't arrive on campus from Rock Island (Ill.) High School as a program savior. He spent his first year learning the playbook, not playing.
And Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz didn't call out any other school, at least publicly, and accuse them of last-minute tampering when signing day arrived in February 2013.
Remember Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads at his signing day press conference this past February, when he called out Notre Dame and Iowa and accused them of tampering with committed wide receiver Allen Lazard from Urbandale?
"He's not going to a school in Northern Indiana," Rhoads said of Lazard, who also had his first career touchdown catch Saturday against Kansas State. "Boy, they wasted a lot of time and money. He's not going to another school in the state who feverishly tried to call him about a half dozen times in the last week."
That's not Ferentz's style. He doesn't sell hyperbole, or thrive on rhetoric. I'm not saying one approach is right and the other is wrong. But the two coaches who meet Saturday at Kinnick Stadium sure are polar opposites when it comes to public expression.
The Ferentz approach struck a chord with Willies, an engineering major who picked the Hawkeyes over Iowa State, Northern Illinois, Eastern Illinois and Illinois State.
If anything, Ferentz has tried to temper expectations with Willies. But those expectations blossomed after Willies had seven catches for 148 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown pass, in the public scrimmage at West Des Moines Valley on April 12. Then he had five more catches in the spring game April 26 at Kinnick Stadium, including a 42-yard touchdown.
"He'll be the spring game sensation," Ferentz said afterward.
That's as much hype as Ferentz was willing to sell. At the start of spring practice, Willies would drop a routine pass or two, then make a sensational catch. By the end of spring practice, Ferentz knew he had made a wise choice in offering Willies a scholarship.
But the hype? The expectations? Forget it.
"He realizes he hasn't made a catch yet in a varsity game," Ferentz said at media day last month. "He hasn't played and earned a letter."
Now, five weeks later, Willies has made a catch and earned a letter. A backup wide receiver, Willies has three catches for 65 yards and a touchdown. His first career catch was a 46-yarder that led to Iowa's clinching touchdown against Northern Iowa in the season opener.
On Saturday against Ball State, Willies' first collegiate touchdown reception came on a 12-yard pass from quarterback Jake Rudock, the first of two Iowa scores in the final 3 minutes that pulled out a 17-13 victory.
Before the season started, Ferentz said he didn't think Willies was out to "create a brand or something like that… I think he's worried about being a good Iowa football player. And that's refreshing."
Willies may not be a Big Ten brand name yet. But he gives the Iowa passing game another downfield threat that was sorely needed. And you do that by action, not words.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.