Zach Willis isn’t too far removed from his days as one of the top high school rushers in the Kansas City area, but the Washburn running back still had a nostalgic feeling after Saturday’s game at Pittsburg State.
Willis, who rushed for 2,628 yards and 41 touchdowns as a senior at Belton (Mo.) High School, enjoyed a breakout outing with 122 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries in WU’s 35-20 win over the Gorillas.
“It kind of brings me back to my high school days, knowing you still got it,” Willis said. “Going out there and doing it in that environment, it’s pretty special.”
At Belton, Willis was a finalist for the Thomas A. Simone Award, which goes to the most outstanding high school football player in the Kansas City Metropolitan Area.
Willis, a 5-foot-8, 210-pound sophomore, played mostly on special teams and some at fullback last year as a freshman, carrying the ball three times.
He said he used his first season as an opportunity to get adjusted to college football.
“It’s definitely a big jump,” Willis said. “You can’t do the exact same things that you did in high school. I really just watched the game and watched how things adapt. You got to be faster when you see the holes, you can’t stutter.
“I just waited my turn, studied, watched the other running backs and became a student of the game.”
Willis has a bruising running style but showed off some speed against Pittsburg State. After PSU bottled up WU’s running game in the first half, Willis kick-started the Washburn offense with his first career touchdown, a 53-yard run in the third quarter to bring WU within a field goal.
“We didn’t change anything. Everyone stayed poised,” Willis said. “We knew if we kept hitting it and kept going back at it, they’d eventually break, and they did.”
Willis later broke off a 40-yard TD to put the Ichabods up 28-20 early in the fourth quarter. Washburn put away the Gorillas with ground and pound and finished with 243 yards rushing on 35 carries.
“When you can run the ball like we did, you can win a lot of football games like that,” Willis said.
Willis entered Saturday’s game with 101 yards rushing on 21 carries before averaging 15.2 yards per attempt against Pitt State, bringing his season total to 223 yards.
“He’s such a powerful kid,” WU coach Craig Schurig said. “Last year, we had a logjam at tailback so he didn’t get the reps. This year, we were like, ‘Hey, we need to play him at tailback.’
“He’s done well. He’s made some of those runs in practice and scrimmages. The stuff that he did against Pitt, we’ve seen that before. It was great to see him have a breakout game like that.”
Willis said the performance was a confidence boost, “knowing you can do those things every game and you can bring that for your team,” Willis said. “I’m just excited to keep it rolling.”
The 4-1 Ichabods will play host to 0-5 Missouri Southern at 1 p.m. on Saturday in Yager Stadium.
Schurig said WU senior linebacker Cedric Gonzalez is day-to-day after rolling his ankle early in the Pitt State game.
“Once he gets push off of it, he’ll play,” Schurig said. “We hope it’s this week. If not, it will be next week.”
WU used several underclassmen to fill Gonzalez’s spot alongside Derrick McGreevy against Pitt, with Brooks Peavler, Kyle Emerick, Nathan Mikoleit and Garret Barnett-Kruger all seeing action.
Schurig said senior linebacker Austin Tillman underwent shoulder surgery this week and will seek a medical redshirt. He was injured in WU’s third game against Lindenwood.