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So far, so good for the final act of Gerald Willis’ college career.
Willis, a redshirt senior defensive tackle expected to be a key figure in Miami’s defense, earned a coaches’ award for his spring performance. Coach Mark Richt handed Willis a “defensive leadership award” Friday at UM’s alumni banquet.
At the event, which brought 60 former Hurricanes back to campus to rub elbows with current players, Richt gave several “most improved” nods for different positions.
Willis, trying to make his last season on campus his best, has been resoundingly praised by coaches for his work in practices — Richt, whenever Willis’ name is brought up, notes that his offense can’t block him — and his improved attitude.
The Hurricanes, who lost starting defensive tackles Kendrick Norton and R.J. McIntosh to the NFL Draft, will need him to be productive for an entire season. He has yet to reach that goal.
The New Orleans native, who previously said he had anger issues, has been suspended multiple times for off-the-field problems in his career, which began at Florida in 2014. He sat out 2015 after transferring to UM, and played in nine games in 2016, during which he played through an MCL injury and was suspended at least twice. He sat out last year to address personal issues.
“I had a lot of personal issues I had to handle off the field,” he said earlier this month. “I had a lot of family issues. I had to get my mind right, so that I could be able to focus this year. It worked a lot. I’m a changed person, I’m a changed man. I changed a lot of ways I used to have. I think I’m a better person and I’m starting to be a better player.”
The other spring coaches’ award winners:
Most Improved QB: true freshman Jarren Williams, who did not throw an interception in either of UM’s first two scrimmages and made several quality throws. As a second-stringer, he went 15-of-22 for 193 yards and three touchdowns against the reserves. Barring a big leap in his system knowledge this summer, he is a redshirt candidate, but Williams is clearly a capable passer. “Jarren has a lot of talent, but it’s tougher for that guy coming in and playing quarterback,” offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said. “But I think he’s a super smart guy that’s learning what to do.”
Most Improved RB: redshirt freshman Robert Burns, who is about 10 pounds larger (5-11, 225) and 100 percent healthier than his first year on campus. Burns, who didn’t play much in his final two high school seasons because of shoulder and ankle injuries, spent much of last year recovering. Burns “has kind of been a ghost since he has been here,” Brown said. “He’s not where I want him to be right now, but he has been a pleasant surprise this spring. He has made some dynamic plays. He has broken some tackles. He’s a 225-pound guy who should play that way. He doesn’t always play that way. I’m definitely pleased with the direction he’s going and his mindset.”
Most Improved WR: true freshman Brian Hightower, who impressed onlookers at last week’s spring game with his four-catch, 100-yard, two-touchdown performance. Richt praised him for his blocking as well as his catching.
Most Improved TE: junior Michael Irvin II, one of two on scholarship this spring. According to Richt, Brown and tight ends coach Todd Hartley, Irvin isn’t yet a finished product. But UM is encouraged by the son of one of UM’s greatest receivers. “Mentally, he’s night and day different, even from a year ago,” Hartley said. “Mentally, he’s night and day different from where he was when we ended the season last year. … He still has his moments, but I’m impressed at his progress so far.”
Most Improved OL: redshirt senior Jahair Jones, who played all of 10 snaps last year and 13 the year before, according to data tracked by The Post. He has held onto a first-team spot at left guard this spring. “He’s stepping up,” offensive line coach Stacy Searels said. “He’s got to continue to get better, but he’s done a good job.”
Offensive Leadership Award: senior center Tyler Gauthier, the only one of UM’s offensive linemen to return in the same spot from last year. Brown has said his offense as a whole lacks player leadership. Gauthier is one of the few willing to try his hand at it.
Most Improved Specialist: walk-on kicker Turner Davidson, who appears to be the top option if scholarship kicker Bubba Baxa can’t win the job this summer.
Most Improved DL: sophomore defensive end Jonathan Garvin, who was already quite good last year.
Most Improved LB: redshirt freshman Waynmon Steed, arrived at UM with a knee injury and has opened eyes this spring, according to defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. He’s backing up Michael Pinckney at Will linebacker.
Most Improved Striker: junior Romeo Finley, who is competing with sophomore Derrick Smith for reps at Miami’s new safety-linebacker hybrid position.
Most Improved Cornerback: sophomore Trajan Bandy, battling to start opposite senior Michael Jackson. He is also the team’s top slot cornerback.
Most Improved Safety: redshirt junior Robert Knowles, who could be UM’s third-best safety behind senior starters Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine. He and sophomore Amari Carter are jockeying for that spot.