“Once we’re able to play for the playoffs and once we get a new stadium, I would put us up against anybody when it comes to recruiting,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when we get the stadium and we’re able to play for playoffs. When we were Division II, we beat Division I schools.”
NCAA transition rules prevent the Lions from playing in the postseason until 2022 as the team makes the move to Division I.
Willis says the Lions have won a lot of games in the 18 seasons he’s been there, including a 7-3 mark in 2018. But he understands UNA must go through a tough period before his “sleeping giant” is truly awake as a full-fledged FCS program.
The next step in that progression comes at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29, as the Lions host Western Illinois at Braly Stadium in Florence.
Alabama NewsCenter: What is the outlook for this season?
Chris Willis: When you don’t have postseason to play for you’ve got to find ways to motivate this team. That’s been the difficult thing right now. It’s tough. They love the game of football and they like going out here practicing and playing, but I think the start of the season’s huge. We’ve got to get off to a good start. Last year we started out 2-0 and we had a good feeling about ourselves. … I want to be competitive. I want to know we went into every game with a chance to win every game. If we’re in the fourth quarter and we’re down a score or 10 points, to me that’s a chance. I want to be in striking distance with an opportunity to win the game.
ANC: What is the strength of this year’s team?
Willis: Defensively, it’s going to be our front eight – our D-line and linebackers as a whole. Offensively, it’s going to come from our wide receiver and our quarterbacks. We had a wide receiver group last year and the quarterback had a heck of a year. Them combined should be our strength over there.
ANC: Who are your team’s standouts?
Willis: On offense, the quarterback, Christian Lopez. He needs to be a leader. At the offensive line Ethan McMullan, a transfer O-lineman we brought in here, we need him to be a leader. He got here last semester. At running back, we’ve got Terence Humphrey, who’s been here with the team for quite some time. I’d like him to lead that group. And at wide receiver, we’re not old; we’re very young, but Jakobi Byrd, a local kid from Florence who was selected all conference, I expect him to be a leader. Defensively, I would say up front Brady Owensby, a guy who’s been in the system a long time, and at linebacker, I’d like to see Will Evans be a leader and in the secondary, K.J. Smith. He’s a transfer from Georgia. He just brings a good vibe to the back end. He knows it’s his last year and he wants to have a good year and wants to lead by example.
ANC: What games do your fans have circled on your schedule?
Willis: Fanwise, I would say Alabama A&M, early, here at home. I would think they’ve got Jacksonville State circled. I would think even the first game of the year. I think that’s a big game. I would think A&M and Jacksonville State because they’re in-state schools. But we’re not on (JSU’s) level now. As much as that’s going to be fun in the future and I think we’re going to get there, right now they’re ahead of us. We’re not on their level right now. They’re a playoff team, picked to win their conference. We just hope we can give them a competitive game. They’re a good football program.
ANC: What is your lingering question?
Willis: I don’t know if there’s anything in particular. There’s really only been one thorn in my hip and that’s just not being able to play for postseason. You can’t win the conference. You can’t go to the playoffs. But let’s just say we run the table and go 11-0. I would probably buy us some rings. The players know they can’t play for anything, and that’s tough. Just finding ways to motivate them throughout the year, and that’s why it’s very important to start off with a fast start.
Download or print a complete schedule of all 15 Alabama college football programs, including North Alabama, here.