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August 16, 2013

Cornerback Willis hoping to get up to speed at UK

He hasn't even unpacked his bags yet, but much is expected of JUCO cornerback Nate Willis.

After arriving at Kentucky on Wednesday, the 6-foot, 180-pound corner has completed just a few practices. Though Friday's morning practice being considered a disappointment by the coaches, Willis was a bright spot.

And any bright spot at corner could shed a positive light on the season.

"I did see some good things from Nate," Mark Stoops said. "I do (like what I've seen from Willis). I think he's got some good ability. It's good to see."

Willis, originally from Pahokee, Fla., focused strictly on basketball his last two years of high school. But a change of heart, and sport, landed him at Arizona Western College playing football.

Grade issues kept Willis at Arizona Western College through the summer and he remained in eligibility limbo until this week. When he received the good news Monday that he had the grades he needed, he immediately booked a flight to Lexington.

And since he's been at Kentucky he hasn't had time to do anything besides play football and listen to what the coaches are telling him.

"Really, I'm just going along with the flow," Willis said. "It's high (momentum) but also I'm just going to work. I'm not really thinking about everything that's going on. I'm just trying to do my job, just getting to work and learn everything quickly."

Willis' job is to help a green secondary, especially with Cody Quinn out with an ankle injury.

Cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley didn't specify when Quinn would be back but noted they wouldn't rush him. His status for the Western Kentucky game is unknown.

Despite limited practice time, Willis has been getting first-team reps, along with freshman corners Jaleel Hytchye and Blake McClain.

Fred Tiller, who totaled 27 tackles last season, also is getting first-team reps.

And while there is plenty of playing time to go around, Willis might bring more to the table than the freshmen because of his experience at Arizona Western.

"Well, yeah, once you can get a guy with experience - two years in junior college - coming in, getting out there and compete at the position, you always want a guy that can give you quality depth," Ansley said.

In two seasons at Arizona Western, Willis had six interceptions. His freshman year, he had 31 tackles helped lead his team to the junior college national title game.

Willis is used to winning, and he hopes to bring that dynamic back to UK. In two seasons at AWCC his teams went 19-3 record.

It might seem unusual for someone so concerned about winning to pick a historically losing program. Though Willis said "It's not really a savior thing," he saw the chance to help change the culture at Kentucky.

"It was a great opportunity, great coaching staff," Willis said. "I wanted to be a part of a turnaround. So, I was here just to help out and just try to do my part and get the defensive mindset like Coach Stoops has, to be smart and come out and just play good defense."

And while Willis has impressed early on, he still has a lot to learn. First he needs to be caught up to speed, both physically and mentally. Although he ran hills back in Arizona during the summer, going up against UK's offense everyday is more comparable to running mountains, and Willis is still catching up.

"I'm in fair shape, trying to get used to the tempo," Willis said. "That was the main part. So everything else is going pretty well… .

"(You) just try to keep your body up and just try to stay in good shape as you can. Then when you get to practice, everything will be new to you. So it takes you a little time to get used to the tempo. I never was in a fast tempo like this, so it's taking time to get used to."

Time might be a concern for UK fans, but the coaches are optimistically patient with the season opener looming just weeks away.

"He's very quick, very athletic," Eliot said. "He's long, he's tall. Not all our corners have those assets."

Stoops expects Willis to be ready by Aug. 31, and Eliot said he'll have the chance to compete for a starting spot.

"Every job's open," he said. "Everybody's got a chance to start. We are a long ways to the game, so (Willis can start), but so does everybody else."

And Stoops said whatever Willis needs to learn shouldn't take long.

"We'll get him ready," Stoops said. "That's the good thing about corner. It's very hard in application, but really pretty easy in theory, really. You're not reinventing the wheel as far as assignments with cornerbacks. But if they can cover somebody they can help us."

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