How Lincoln Riley and Cale Gundy discovered Brayden Willis

Oklahoma tight end Brayden Willis (81) flashes the "horns down" sign after beating Texas 39-27 in the Big 12 Conference championship Dec. 1, 2018, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo)

NORMAN — Lincoln Riley and Cale Gundy were recruiting the Dallas area late January of last year, chatting up Colleyville Heritage High School coach Joe Willis when Oklahoma’s need for a tight end came up.

Riley needed someone at that position from the 2018 class with signing day was approaching fast. Willis had a recommendation: “The best I’ve seen in the metroplex is over at Arlington Martin,” he told them.

It was Brayden Willis, who is of no relation to the coach. In fact, they’ve still never met.

But the coach knew Willis had been playing out of position as Arlington Martin’s quarterback due to injuries, and that his 6-foot-3 frame could make him a dominant college tight end.

That tip changed Willis’ future as a player and was a lucky discovery for Gundy and Riley.

They hopped in their truck, left Colleyville, and by the time Gundy merged onto Interstate 35, Riley had already pulled up Willis’ senior highlights on his phone. When it was safe, he passed the screen over to Gundy for a look.

“And we liked him enough, heck, we called his coach and we were over at his high school about an hour and a half later,” Riley said. “We spent like an hour with him there and the kid just blew us away.

“The rest is kind of history.”

Willis visited Norman that weekend, committed on Jan. 29 — eight days before the late signing period — and has turned into one of OU’s better recruiting steals in recent memory.

He appeared in 13 games as a freshman last fall, playing special teams and tight end, but has since moved to the Sooners’ well-utilized H-back position, where he’ll challenge Jeremiah Hall for playing time.

Willis is now 20 pounds heavier than he was in high school and could become more involved offensively. Carson Meier and Dimitri Flowers thrived in the role under Riley, and H-back coach Shane Beamer said he pushed to get Willis into his position room.

“A lot of recruiting on my part to get him to me,” Beamer said. “He’s just a really good football player. I can remember when we were recruiting him. I had just taken the job. I was back at my house in Athens (Ga.), and Lincoln sent me some video and said what do you think of this guy? It was obvious to see how talented a football player he was.”

OU’s H-backs have a thorough understanding of the offense, from the run to passing game and everything taking place up front.

“You have to be more athletic than people think,” Willis said. “Everything — a do-it-all type of guy has to be able to play there, blocking, catching running routes. We’re trying to incorporate some diverse things with the position. You’ve just got to be able to do it all. It’s not really one thing.

Willis is a step ahead mentally because of his quarterback experience. He became used to knowing everyone’s role on the field.

He was mostly a runner at Colleyville Heritage, but also threw passes to Sorrell Brown, who’s now a receiver at Tulane. Though playing QB helped Willis become more versatile, it negatively affected his recruitment as a tight end.

He’d been largely overlooked before committing to OU as a Rivals.com three-star recruit, with his most notable offers coming from Kansas State, Wake Forest, Illinois and Arizona.

Riley still marvels that Willis was available. Finding prospects the way he and Gundy did that year doesn’t happen often. “There’s not many secrets (in recruiting),” Riley said. “But there’s still a few here and there.”

That trip to Colleyville turned out interesting. OU’s coaches were there checking on Drew Sanders, a linebacker/tight end who ultimately flipped his commitment to Alabama this past spring.

But the Sooners wound up with a great talent anyway.

Joe Willis, the Colleyville coach who tipped off Riley and Gundy, wound up getting a visit from Willis’ parents thanking him for making the recommendation. He can’t wait to see what happens with the player down the road.

“Cale told me, he said, ‘Yeah, Lincoln said on the way back to Oklahoma that’s the kind of kid who will be a captain here in a few years,” Joe Willis said. “And I tend to agree.”

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Palmateer is sports editor for for The Norman Transcript, a CNHI News Service publication.

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