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Don’t underestimate Neuqua Valley’s undersized Gabe Willis

Neuqua Valley senior Gabe Willis upends basic theories about his position.

Willis — all 5 feet, 8 inches of him — plays defensive end. His size just makes him hyperaware of his surroundings.

“I go into every game knowing for a fact that I am the smallest guy on the line,” he said. “I never want the other offensive linemen to think this is going to be easy. I have more heart, will and power than they do.”

That ruthless and relentless playing style is his defining characteristic as a key two-year starter for the Wildcats (2-1).

“He’s a quarterback’s worst nightmare,” senior cornerback Nic Lendino said. “He is smaller than most defensive linemen, but he sure is better than almost all of them. He goes 110% on every play. Gabe is definitely fun to play with.”

Willis also upends conventional thinking.

“Some people might think it’s an easy task blocking him because of his size, but he uses it to his advantage on almost every play,” senior linebacker Cole Dutkovich said.

Willis had been slated to play outside linebacker. But his combination of balance, quickness and ability to disrupt the offensive attack made his shift to edge rusher a natural move.

Adapting quickly to the role, Willis showed a flair for harassing quarterbacks.

“I feel like last year was a pretty good year for me,” he said. “I like how I got the exposure and how playing defensive end let me showcase my talents.”

Playing linebacker meant learning how to operate in space. Playing on the defensive line was more direct and confrontational.

Willis also applied technique and approach.

“I have learned the offensive linemen more, how they move and how they do the things they do,” he said. “I know for a fact I am faster than any of them I am going up against. I have to be able to initiate a move before they do.”

Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus said the older and more experienced version of Willis is a more advanced and complete player.

“Gabe always had the quickness and the ability to get around people,” Ellinghaus said. “He still has that explosiveness. The biggest difference in his game now is he has the power to go through people. He is even more of a complete player.”

Playing fast runs in Willis’ family. His father James was a track standout in high school. His younger brother Ian is a sophomore wide receiver at St. Francis.

“I was born in Wheaton, and we moved to Naperville when I was in the third grade,” Willis said. “When we first got to Naperville, my dad asked us what sports we wanted to try out. My brother said football. At first I wasn’t that crazy about the idea. I wasn’t that aggressive when I was younger. I said I’d try it out.”

Willis hasn’t looked back.

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“He is an incredibly smart football player who will find a way to beat you, whether it’s in the running or the passing game,” Dutkovich said.

Playing defensive end just unlocks Willis’ best qualities on the field.

“Defensive end is a good position for me, and I like it a lot,” he said. “I like the advantages I have there.

“At the same time, not every smaller guy could play this position. You have to have the toughness. I have learned to build that toughness.”

Patrick Z. McGavin is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.

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