Brayden Willis’ new jersey number isn’t just a wardrobe change. The senior H-back told reporters Wednesday his offseason transition from No. 81 to No. 9 is his attempt at reinventing himself.
Willis only played in five games last season after suffering an undisclosed injury during Oklahoma’s 38-35 loss to Kansas State. He had nine receptions for 110 yards and a touchdown in that span. In his sophomore season in 2019, Willis recorded 11 catches for 168 yards and three scores.
Now, the Arlington, Texas, native is determined to have his best season yet. In order to do that, Willis said he’s viewing this year as a clean slate. In fact, that’s how he views this year for the Sooners’ entire H-back room. With redshirt senior Jeremiah Hall and junior Austin Stogner — who overcame an injury of his own — returning with Willis, the group should provide OU’s offense plenty of needed production.
“All of us are competitive,” Willis said of the Sooners’ H-back trio. “It really makes us elevate our game, which is honestly the best type of competition right there. If a guy makes a play in practice, you got to make a play in practice, too. If a guy makes a great block in practice, you go to make a great block, too. … It just makes all of us better.”
Willis said his fear of disappointing his teammates and coaches was another driving factor in his return to the field. The 6-foot-4, 225 pounder also credited Hall and Stogner for keeping him in check as he recovered.
The three have formed a brotherly bond in their time at OU, Willis said. They spend a lot of time together away from football. Willis and Hall even started a podcast — titled “The Podcast on the Prairie” — this offseason which is meant to showcase the two’s personalities outside of football. The podcast also helps capitalize on the NCAA’s new name, image and likeness policy, but Willis said the Sooners will have to complete their goals on the field to fully reap NIL benefits.
Willis believes the arrival of H-backs coach Joe Jon Finley — who replaced newly hired South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer this offseason — has poised his position room for success. Finley was a tight end for the Sooners from 2003-07, where he finished his career with 62 catches, 775 receiving yards and 10 receiving touchdowns in 50 games.
“He’s a great coach and a great man,” Willis said of Finley. “Having him as a coach has been really a game changer for us. Just the little things (he coaches) add up to big things, and that’s gonna help us during the season.”
Ultimately, Willis said adding Finley’s guidance and an experienced H-back trio to OU’s offense should make it one of the country’s best.
“Our offense, as a whole, is already potent and lethal as is,” Willis said. “I think if (our H-backs) stay healthy, it’s just going to add to that. We all bring such different elements as players, and I think that can make us into the standard of college football.”