Chris Willis

Head coach Chris Willis will be going into his third year of Division-I football this next fall. An almost identical schedule to his 2019 campaign, Willis’ recruitment looks to pay off and contribute to a winning record in the 2020 season in Braly Stadium.

Head coach Chris Willis and defensive coordinator Steadman Campbell reel in back to back double digit recruiting classes in their first two seasons of Division-I. Only 13 seniors leaving the program from the 2019 season meant only a few positions were of need in the off-season.

A season ago, North Alabama added 26 players by the end of the summer to their program.

The Lions add 15 new additions this year with their recruitment efforts in their latest class. Willis worked hard and brought in a plethora of offensive linemen in this class, while also adding a few PWO’s into the mix.

“We signed about five offensive linemen, four are now enrolled here,” said Willis. “We start spring football Feb. 10 and we get to see these guys in action. That is huge for us. We are also focusing on three or four spots on the defensive line. We only had one senior at defensive line, so we like where we are at the offensive and defensive line.”

During Early SIgning Day, the Lions brought in 13 players, more than many other local FCS schools. However, they only accumulated two more on National Signing Day to round out the rest of the signing class 

“We felt really good about it [ESD],” said Willis. “It was a little different than last year for us because we hadn;t signed that many during early signing period. We signed 13 total, and 11 enrolled in January; that doesn’t happen often.”

The ESD first started in 2017-2018 year, allowing players to ink their intentions into existence in Dec. instead of Feb. now. This allows players to sign at two different days instead of waiting until the final moment and signing all on one day.

Along with the five linemen, Willis brings in a quarterback, long snapper and wide receiver along with six defensive players. 12 of the 15 signees come from transfers, while only three come from high school.

“We didn’t have to have a big time high school base this time around,” said Willis. “Next year’s signing class will  probably be all high school. A lot of these [transfers] are just juniors and sophomores outside of the quarterback and defensive end we just signed. This is a big year to sprinkle in the transfers into the roster.”

Only a handful of seniors are leaving the program this year, however there is an abundance of young talent to fill most of the holes. The major spots that needed attention were quarterback and defensive back that saw players such as Christian Lopez and D’Andre Hart leave the program.

Willis and staff corrected both of those positions by bringing grad transfer, Reid Herring and signing Luke Nail. Campbell also helped add two transfer defensive backs in Kyree Fields and Johnathan Jordan. 

“Both Kyree Fields and Johnathan Jordan are gonna come in,” said Campbell. “We have lost several guys in the secondary and we brought those guys in at the break. They are older guys and have experience, so the safety position is wide open. We feel like Kyree can come in and fill that need.”

After the transition to the Division-I level, many players are still considered to be Division-II material. This makes it even more competitive during the off-season to bring in bigger, strong and faster guys to begin to put up fights against already known FCS powerhouses. The pressure became known after this past season due to depth issues at the offensive line position and also the size of some players compared to others.

“These are all Division-I guys [recruitment class],” said Willis. “Do we still have guys left from Division-II? Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t plan Division-I. We are still cycling through, but these guys have progressed and adapted to Division-I. All these guys had Division-I attributes, if we were Division-II, we probably would not have gotten any of them.”

Many coaches have to invest a heavy amount of time with the athletes they bring in to their programs. They have to make in-home visits, travel to different areas, facetimes, calls and even meet with parents to get athletes interested enough to sign to their school.

“We do everything else other schools do, there’s no separation,” said Willis. “It is about the relationship that you build. You can text unlimited, but you can only phone call so many times, only so many times you can go by and visit them. I might be one of six coaches that calls a player, you gotta build that connection and use those ties that you have to bring him here. It is not easy, definitely not while we are in this transition; in my opinion it is harder to get a high school player than a transfer.”

Willis and the Lions team split up the state, then they give each coach an area to recruit within. There, coaches will call high school coaches and players, find film on athletes, call families, find stats, background check them for behavior and more. After doing this, they bring it back to the drawing board within the coaching staff and make decisions on who they would like to pursue to bring into the program.

“We get on the phone with coaches and see who they recommend to us,” said Campbell. “Everyone has a hudl account, we watch that and email more coaches. We start ranking [players] and then we go out and try and see these guys in person. We try and get them on campus as much as possible, whether it’s camps or unofficially at this time of the year. We aim to be done with a year’s recruiting by the end of December so we can start next year’s after that.”

The area coach ultimately opens with initiation with talking with athletes, then it works from there down to the position coaches. They alternate phone calls to make sure both coaches have a relationship with the player. 

The NCAA allows only 63 players to be on full scholarships, so coaches tend to break up scholarships to bring in more players. Willis has 96 current players on his roster, 75 on scholarship. 

“A lot of people don’t understand that,” said Willis. “There will be players across the area that will sign scholarships that are broken up. If you are FBS, such as your Tennessee’s, those will be full [scholarships] more than likely. Most likely there will just be an amount given to the kid, but does that matter? No, because they are still on scholarship and work into that number that teams are given.” 

A majority of the class came from the transfer portal this year. Willis sensed a need for older players to help mature a young team that is still building to compete in the Big South conference. The transfer portal helps bring in older guys to fill positions of need that cannot be brought in by high school athletes.

Being such a young team, Willis did not have to play many freshman. The Lions gave each freshman last year a redshirt and not burning one. This means each freshman got to play in four overall games last year without burning their first year of eligibility. That implies that they become redshirt freshman, giving them a fifth year in school if they choose to stay that long.

“[Transfers] invest in your program,” said Willis. “But they aren’t like a guy that comes in here and redshirts, that is gonna go graduate from here, go to school here five years, and put in that time. You can’t bring in a bunch of transfers, so we have built and I like that. If you look at this roster, look at how many will be back for the years to come.”

The Lions are still under probation for transferring from Division-II to Division-I play. This probation holds them from entering the playoffs during this time and it will continue for two more years. This also helps other coaches competing for the same recruits by having the upper-hand in being able to go to the playoffs.

“Right now, we have two more years,” said Willis. “We have to find a way, it is getting easier but we still have two more years of it. There is nothing I can do about that, that is how the rules are laid out. The people do know that we are coming, I think people sense that, it is like a sleeping giant here.”

The Lions will start their third season of Division-I this upcoming year. The open against Western Illinois, the same opener from last year. However, they will play a tougher schedule, such as traveling to Blacksburg, VA, to play Virginia Tech or to Provo, UT to play BYU.

North Alabama will open their first home game against a long time rival, Jacksonville State on Sep. 12. They are slated to play an 11-game schedule; besides VT and BYU, the Lions play almost a mirror image to last year’s schedule. They will play the same conference opponents and only one outlier in UT-Chatt for another non-conference game.

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