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IOWA CITY — Kirk Ferentz did some homework on Derrick Willies during recruiting. Ferentz formed a picture of what he expected in his mind. When that picture actually sat in front of him, engaged in real conversation and thought, the perception evaporated.
Willies, a redshirt freshman wide receiver, was born in Banning, Calif., a town just north of Palm Springs in the southern California desert and grew up there. He lived in Las Vegas with his mom, Mandie. Then, he moved to Burlington, the place he said he’s lived the longest, with his aunt. As a junior for the Grayhounds, he led the Mississippi Athletic Conference in receiving.
After a family fallout, he moved to Rock Island (Ill.) High School, where he won a 110-meter high hurdles state title as a junior (and suffered a torn hamstring twice as a senior hurdler). Before the move to Rock Island, his mom made Nic Gieselman his legal guardian so he could compete in sports. Nic and Cassie Gieselman have three young children of their own.
That’s a lot of miles and storylines for a 19-year-old.
“You always put pictures together in your mind when you read the reports a little bit,” Ferentz said. “And when I met him, he was just exactly opposite, basically. He was so respectful. He’s a great young man. Nic and Cassie have done a great job really looking after him. To watch him with their little baby, it was pretty revealing, too.”
Willies was the spring sensation for the Hawkeyes. He lit up Iowa’s secondary in two open scrimmages, scoring touchdowns, running after the catch and breaking tackles. True freshmen aren’t allowed to speak to the media (Ferentz rule), and so Willies had a swarm of media buzzing during Monday’s media day.
His arms covered in tattoos — he declined to discuss any of the meanings, but his left shoulder had “Faith, Family and Football” in tattoo bluish green — and with reporters from across the state bombing him with questions, Willies cracked a smile exactly twice in 10 minutes.
On Nic’s sense of humor, “Yeah, he’s a funny guy. He’s definitely entertaining.” (Willies later added, in a joking manner, “He can be annoying sometimes, but it’s OK.”)
And then on suddenly finding himself as a high school senior living in a home with babies.
“It’s helped me grow up,” said Willies, who had 56 receptions for 877 yards and 10 touchdowns his senior season at Rock Island. “They’ve taught me a lot of things about family and stuff that I wasn’t too familiar with growing up ... I see them as my little brother or little sister. It definitely brought a new meaning of family to me. Before, I wasn’t too fond of babies, but now I love kids.”
Willies was understandably guarded in his answers. There are few details and there is no give here. On journey to Iowa from California, “It was a lot of moving, a lot of new faces. Not too much time to be adjusted anywhere.” As annoying as media day can be for athletes — let’s not kid ourselves here — Willies didn’t say much to his Iowa teammates during his first few months in Iowa City.
“He was a guy who was a little guarded when it came to coaching him last fall,” Ferentz said. “He’s really opened up now and is embracing things. That’s fun to watch that process.”
Ferentz said Willies, an engineering major, carried a 3.0 GPA through his first year. “I thought he’d come in and struggle a little bit academically, based on this school that school and this school,” Ferentz said. “He’s come in and done a really good job. That doesn’t tell the whole story, but I think it’s a pretty good indicator of where a guy’s head is at, typically.”
Willies comes online just in time for an Iowa receiving corps that has been an inconsistent factor in offensive coordinator Greg Davis’ first two seasons. Ferentz, in Chicago for Big Ten media days, said Iowa didn’t have a passing game in 2012 (just eight TD passes). The 2013 season, with Jake Rudock in his first year as starter, was a positive step. And then Willies’ arrival in the spring was an eye opener.
“The thing I say about Derrick is he probably made the biggest jump of really anybody in the spring,” wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy said. “You could see his athletic ability taking over when he started to gain confidence in knowing what he’s doing in route depths and assignments and reading defenses. I was really pleased. I think he has a tremendous upside. I think he could be a really solid contributor for us.”
Before the expectations and all that spin off the axis and into the galaxy, Willies’ next catch will be his first career catch. However, if his football follows his life journey, you can predict growth in Willies’ future.
“I haven’t asked this but I sense it,” Ferentz said. “I think appreciative of the fact that people look out for him.
“I go back to Nic and Cassie and the coaches at his high school. I think he’s appreciative of the fact that he has a chance to get his degree, play in a good program, be around a lot of good teammates. I don’t ask guys that stuff, but you can just tell by the way he acts, he gets it. This is a good deal for him and he’s going to try to do something with his life. It’s neat to see that with a guy that young.”
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