Ryan Willis had nothing to lose when he was drafted this May by the Linemen, a football team that plays in The Spring League.
The former Kansas quarterback had been training in Scottsdale, Arizona after his final season at Virginia Tech — he transferred from the Jayhawks to the Hokies — when he got the call from his agent.
Hal Mumme, the godfather of the Air Raid offense, wanted him to lead the team.
Willis, a Bishop Miege High School graduate, didn’t even know his name was in the mix for the draft, but he was being offered the chance to throw the ball with NFL scouts watching.
How could he say no?
“I picked up the phone, called Coach Mumme, and he kind of gave me his philosophy and what he plans on doing, how he sees me fitting into offense,” Willis said. “I sat down with my family, and we’re like, ‘OK, I don’t have anything to lose. Let’s go throw the ball 40-50 times a game, see what I can put on film and hopefully that’ll propel me into getting a shot in the league.’”
The season didn’t start off perfectly; the Linemen lost their first game. But Willis said something changed that night.
“We felt like we should have won the game and we told Coach Mumme, ‘Coach we’re about to run this field, we’re about to go five and one and things are about to start clicking,’” Willis said. “The amount of confidence we had after losing that game is something I’ve never seen in my life.
“And we held true to our promise to Coach Mumme, we won five in a row… We’re going to keep playing loose, we’re going to keep playing relaxed, we’re just having fun with it.”
On Saturday in Houston, Willis and the Linemen (5-1) will play the Jousters (4-2) in The Spring League’s Mega Bowl championship game. The game will be televised on FOX at 2 p.m. Central Time.
The Spring League is a professional developmental football league that’s run for two months every spring for five seasons. Some of the players have NFL experience. Others are NFL hopefuls who went undrafted, like Willis. According to the league’s website, 104 players have been signed out of The Spring League since 2017.
Willis, who led the league with 1,680 passing yards and 13 touchdowns this season, said he feels like a kid again playing football, and it’s “pretty refreshing.”
Under Mumme’s offensive philosophy, Willis has thrived. He played some Air Raid at Kansas under Rob Likens, who coached under Mumme disciple Sonny Dykes at Cal.
Now, Willis is playing and developing under Mumme — and he said he’s seeing the game better than ever, even calling plays part of the time.
“The game’s moving slower than it ever has for me,” Willis said. “I’m seeing things happen before they’re actually happening … Coach Mumme’s kind of given me the keys to his offense, so I get to call a lot of the plays myself. He’s built trust in me.
“It’s been a lot of fun just playing in this offense. It’s given me the tools to do what I want and spread the ball around.”
Willis said eight or nine NFL teams have reached out to him, and it’s starting to look like it’s no longer a question of if he’ll get a chance, but rather where, and when.
“I’m just kind of going about my daily business every day,” he said, “and hopefully if I keep having good habits on off the field, good things will happen. Something will hit.”
Willis will get another chance to make his case for NFL teams when the Linemen will take on the Jousters (4-2) in Rice Stadium on Saturday.