BLACKSBURG — A look at the highs and lows of Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis' collegiate career.
Willis verbally commits (May 2, 2014) — Ryan Willis picked Kansas over Kansas State, Indiana, Tulsa, Wyoming and Illinois after being heavily recruited by Charlie Weis. Weis was fired a month into the 2014 season, but the Bishop Miege quarterback kept to his pledge when the Jayhawks hired David Beaty as coach. He was the program's top-rated player from the 2015 class and only one of two in-state players to sign that year.
Willis to the rescue (Oct. 6, 2015) — Kansas thought about redshirting Willis as a true freshman, but a series of injuries — Michael Cummings (knee), Montell Cozart (shoulder) and Deondre Ford (hand) — led to him starting a Week 5 game against then No. 3 ranked Baylor. Willis was 20 of 36 for 158 yards with a touchdown and interception.
“He has no shortage of confidence,” Beaty said at the time. “Man, that’s something that you can’t give them. They either have it or they don’t.”
A tough spot (Nov. 28, 2015) — Kansas was winless in Willis' eight starts, but he wasn't totally to blame. Willis was sacked 31 times and according to ESPN was hit or pressured on nearly 25 percent of his dropbacks.
“He knew he had very limited time to throw the football,” offensive coordinator Rob Likens said at the time. “Everything had to be quickened. It was a very tough spot to be put into for a young guy.”
Willis flashed his potential setting freshman records in passing yards (1,719) and touchdowns (nine) and nearly leading his team to a late season upset of No. 15 TCU on the road.
Disappointing break (March 4, 2016) — Kansas announced Willis suffered an offseason wrist injury playing pick-up basketball in a short statement. It would end up being a major setback for Willis, who ended up missing all of spring as he was supposed to be competing for the starting job against a healthy Montell Cozart.
“It was really unfortunate. I was disappointed. Coach was disappointed. My family was disappointed,” Willis said at the time. “You’ve got to take it for how it is. It happened. We’ve got to move on to the next thing.”
Back in the saddle (Oct. 8, 2016) — After splitting time through the first four weeks of the season, Willis regained the starting quarterback job ahead of a matchup against TCU.
Willis threw for 348 yards (68% passing), but turned the ball over four times (three interceptions) and was sacked six times in the 24-23 loss. Kansas kicker Matthew Wyman missed a 54-yard field goal in the final seconds.
“Man, that’s a tough show for a quarterback that hasn’t started really, and they’re throwing all kind of different things at you, and he handled it pretty well,” Beatty said after the game. “He still had some nice production. But the thing I love about him, man, is spirit.”
Down and out (Oct. 15, 2016) — The worst start of Willis’ career ended up being his final one in a Jayhawks’ uniform. The sophomore was 10 of 19 for 89 yards with three interceptions and a fumble in a 49-7 loss at Baylor. The team’s lone touchdown came late in the game with Willis on the bench.
“The majority of the mistakes we've made from the quarterback standpoint has been the inability to read, and locking on and thinking, hey, I've got this,” Beaty said after the game.
Under the radar (Jan. 11, 2017) — Willis decided to transfer when it became clear Kansas wanted to go in a different direction, but the quarterback didn’t reveal that publicly as he quietly researched his options. He jumped onto Virginia Tech’s radar thanks to his father’s ties to special teams coordinator James Shibest.
Tech didn’t have a scholarship to offer, but the opportunity proved too good to pass up for Willis.
“To me it shows the type of kid he is,” Willis’ high school coach Jon Holmes said. “He is a competitor. When he got there, he said, ‘coach, there’s four quarterbacks ahead of me, but I know if I get in there and do the things I can do, I can be one of the best guys they’ve got.'"
Splashy debut (April 15, 2018) — Willis spent a season on the scout team sitting out as a transfer. By the time spring camp rolled around in 2018, a refreshed Willis was ready to compete for the starting job. Fans started to take notice of Willis when he threw 262 yards and two touchdowns including an 83-yarder to Sean Savoy in the spring game.
“He took a beating during that year and a half at KU,” Willis’ high school coach Jon Holmes said. “His body was tired. He was broken down a little bit. I think the redshirt year built his confidence up, get his energy going up again and fall back in love with the game.”
Glimmer of hope (Sept. 29, 2018) — Willis almost rallied the troops against Old Dominion, but his proper return under center happened a week later on the road at No. 22 Duke. Willis got the elusive first win of his career throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-14 win.
“We’ve been watching him practice for going on two years now so we see him every day and know he has some talent,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said after the game. “He’s a competitor. He has some toughness and likes the game. He was really having fun out there. It certainly wasn’t too big for him.”
A drive to remember (Oct. 13, 2018) — After marching the Hokies down the field on a 18-play, 98-yard drive in the fourth quarter, Willis threw a touchdown to Dalton Keene with 19 seconds left to cap a wild 22-19 comeback win in Chapel Hill.
Willis had more passing yards on the drive than he did in the first half, but the biggest play he made came on the ground when he scrambled for a first down on a fourth-and-nine.
“He stayed in there and battled and scratched and clawed and put together a nice drive,” Fuente said after the game.
Frustration builds (Nov. 17, 2018) — Willis couldn’t steer the ship in the right direction during a four-game losing streak (with an average margin of defeat of 21 points) that culminated with a fans leaving at halftime of a blowout 38-14 loss to Miami. Tech turned the football over twice in their own territory, missed a field goal and came up empty on nine straight drives.
Take a sip (Nov. 23, 2018) — Willis made his mark on the Commonwealth Cup rivalry late in the fourth quarter with a desperation throw to Dalton Keene. Keene made a spectacular catch over Bryce Hall at Virginia's 30-yard line to keep the game-tying drive alive. Tech ultimately forced overtime where Brian Johnson’s 42-yard field goal sealed the team’s 15th straight win in the rivalry.
“The play was kind of broken,” Willis said. “At that point of the game you just have to kind of make something happen.”
Best for last (Dec. 1, 2018) — Willis came through with a career-best performance Virginia Tech to help extend the country’s longest active bowl streak to 26 games. Willis put the Hokies up 31-6 in the first half with four touchdowns (all to different targets).
“This season, we’ve faced tons of adversity — people quitting, not doing right, getting hurt,” Willis said after the game. “We’ve got a very resilient group of guys in the locker room. I’m proud and I’m just relieved. Kept both streaks alive.”
A new day (March 20, 2019) — Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente told the team after the 2018 season that Willis earned the right to compete for the starting spot. Willis threw for 2,716 yards (58% passing) with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The decision didn’t sit well with former starter Josh Jackson, but Fuente remained committed to opening spring camp with a competition at quarterback.
”Put the ball down and go play, see how it goes,” Fuente said of his plan at the position.
Last man standing (Aug. 22, 2019) — Fuente named Willis the starter with a little more than a week before the season-opener at Boston College.