Vance Willis

Temple’s Vance Willis has made improvements in each game during his first season as the Wildcats’ starting quarterback.

If Vance Willis never had left Temple’s football program, he probably would be in the same position he is today: the Wildcats’ starting quarterback for his senior season.

However, Willis might not appreciate his current role nearly as much if he hadn’t had to work so hard — the result of being hard-headed and making youthful mistakes, he admits — to get back in good standing and earn the privilege of putting on Temple’s vaunted blue-front, white-back pants on Friday nights.

After spending the 2017 season and the subsequent spring away from football, Willis did everything that coach Scott Stewart required to rejoin the program and serve as Temple’s backup quarterback in 2018.

Willis’ lone season as the starter got off to a nervous, rocky start three weeks ago when he threw four interceptions during the first half and five overall in a 35-29 loss at Round Rock Cedar Ridge, but he responded a week later by passing for 306 yards and four touchdowns in the Wildcats’ home-opening 51-29 win over Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon (Mexico).

“I studied film hard,” he said.

Willis continued his progress in Temple’s District 12-6A opener last Friday, throwing for 207 yards and two TDs in an interception-free performance and running for a team-leading 73 yards as the Wildcats pounded Harker Heights 37-3.

As Temple (2-1) prepares to play Killeen Shoemaker (1-1, 0-0) in its 12-6A home opener at 7:30 tonight at Wildcat Stadium, Willis — who’s passed for 636 yards and seven touchdowns — has the growing confidence of a quarterback who expects to make big plays without making big mistakes.

“All week in practice we work on executing plays, and it just felt good to come out and execute just like we did in practice,” the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Willis said of the offense’s balanced, 416-yard output against Heights. “Everybody touched the ball and we worked as a team.”

It was a definite departure from how Willis played in his starting debut at Cedar Ridge.

“My first game, I was nervous, because I know the whole city’s looking at me. If we lose, it’s on me,” said Willis, who had a 15-yard scoring run and a 53-yard touchdown pass to senior star Quentin Johnston in the opener. “In the first half I was trying to force balls that I knew shouldn’t be forced.

“I had to shake it off and remind myself on the sideline, ‘Next drive, I’m still the quarterback.’ I couldn’t dwell on it. But six turnovers against a good team, you can’t come back from that.”

Two interceptions came after Temple thought it had a free play because it believed Cedar Ridge had jumped offside, but no penalties were called. Another pick came on a Hail Mary throw to the end zone as first-half time expired, and only one interception led to Cedar Ridge points.

Stewart compared Willis’ starting debut to that of T.J. Rumfield, who in Temple’s 2017 opener against Belton threw three interceptions but fired two second-half touchdown passes to key the Wildcats’ 38-31 win. Rumfield passed for 3,384 yards and 35 touchdowns in 14 games in his only season as the starter.

“Vance is just a kid that needs reps. Game-speed reps teach you a completely different lesson than (practice),” Stewart said. “Two of those interceptions were on (apparent) free plays, so you take that away and he threw three interceptions. Well, T.J. Rumfield threw three interceptions against Belton.

“Vance made two really bad decisions and one where he’s just trying to make something happen. You look at T.J., it was a different outcome in that game, but it was very similar play. And look at how much better that kid got. You hope Vance stays healthy and keeps doing the same thing.”

Willis said he speaks often with Rumfield and Jared Wiley, whom he backed up at QB last season and now is a freshman tight end at Texas. Willis also absorbs advice from former Temple standout Reid Hesse, who passed for 6,248 yards and 49 touchdowns and won eight playoff games from 2015-16.

“Reid’s helped me this year. I talk to him a lot,” said Willis, who’s thrown six touchdown passes against only one interception in Temple’s last two games. “After Cedar Ridge he told me, ‘Don’t worry about what anybody thinks.’”

Wildcats offensive coordinator Josh Sadler said Willis’ first-game struggles and subsequent improvements were to be anticipated.

“Right now, the game’s slowing down for him. As expected, the first real varsity snaps he took, everything was moving fast,” Sadler said. “As he sees the game more and more, the reads are getting easier. We preach that the most important throw is the next throw. It’s a water-off-the-duck’s-back mentality. Failure is part of it. We’re not going to stop throwing.”

Unlike pocket-passing predecessors Hesse, Rumfield and Wiley, Willis is a speedy dual-threat QB capable of damaging defenses as a runner. Stewart said that versatility puts more responsibilities on Willis’ proverbial plate.

“Vance is trying to balance learning how to read the run game and learning how to read coverage,” Stewart said. “It’s a different level of being a student of the game.”

Sharing a dynamic backfield with current Temple senior running back Anthony Jackson, Willis quarterbacked Bonham Middle School to an 18-0 record and continued to excel as QB of the Wildcats’ top freshman team in 2016. Going into 2017 spring practice, Stewart expected sophomore-to-be Willis to compete with Rumfield and Wiley for the starting quarterback job.

But those plans quickly evaporated, as did Willis’ spot in Temple’s program.

“I made some bad choices with my life and I ran into some trouble (outside of school),” Willis said. “I regretted everything I did. I wish I would’ve handled it differently. I know the offense now, but I feel like I would’ve known it 10 times better.”

Said Stewart: “His attention was elsewhere. He was a lot of places but here. He made mistakes.”

Willis is a lifelong baseball player and continued to play outfield for Temple’s baseball team, but after missing the Wildcats’ spring and summer football workouts he asked Stewart if he could rejoin the program before the 2017 season. The coach’s answer wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy.

“I said, ‘Sure, you’re never fired for life here. As soon as this season’s over, come see me,’” Stewart said. “He said, ‘But, I want to play this season.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s not going to happen, because you missed everything we hold dear. Prove to me that you’ve had a change of heart and come see me when this season’s over, and then we’ll talk.’ I think that got his attention.

“He showed up in January and said, ‘Coach, I want to be a part of it.’ I said, ‘Here’s our re-entry program and this is what you’ve got to do. If you miss a day, you’re out.’ It literally was a one-year suspension. He worked his butt off and hasn’t skipped a beat since. I don’t hold grudges.”

Willis couldn’t participate in Temple’s athletic period and had to make every after-school and summer workout. After he completed that grueling regimen, Stewart reinstated him to the program before the 2018 season.

“It’s like boot camp. You’re constantly working. I couldn’t miss a day. It was a struggle,” Willis said. “My family was upset with me, but at that time I was so hard-headed you couldn’t tell me nothing. But they supported me through the whole thing and wanted me to go back to football.”

Willis’ father, Vance Sr., is a former Wildcats basketball player who works as Temple ISD’s network manager. Tonight, the elder Willis, his wife and Vance Jr.’s three younger brothers will watch a more mature, grateful version of Temple’s No. 10 start at quarterback at Wildcat Stadium. The comeback has been well worth his effort.

“That taught me a lot of responsibility,” Willis said. “Temple High’s program teaches you how to become a man. You’ve got to get up early every morning, lift weights and run. Everything is earned.”