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Raiders UDFA Profile: WR Austin Willis from small school walk-on to NFL hopeful

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Each year around this time it seems there are stories of players overcoming the odds to get their shot at the NFL. They like to call them ‘Cinderella stories' and the name "Rudy" gets tossed around. Austin Willis is such a player.

This 5-9, 176-pounder didn't get any interest from colleges coming out of high school. Unlike ‘Rudy', he wasn't dead set on playing for a prestigious institution such as Notre Dame. He just wanted a shot, and to get it he would walk on to the football team at small school Emporia State.

So to go from that to entering OTA's for the NFL's Oakland Raiders is quite a journey. One which is always accompanied with terms like "hard work" and "determination".

He came to Emporia State on a track scholarship. That was how he got his foot in the door to set his sights on his real ambition of playing football.

After making the team, he then had to pay his dues. His first season the undersized athlete played mostly on special teams, catching just one pass on offense. From there he continued to work on his craft and earn a role on the offense.

"It's kind of tough those first couple of years proving yourself and climbing the ladder, but just like anything else, if you're patient good things will happen," Willis told the Emporia Gazette following his invitation to Raiders rookie minicamp. "Coach Higgins gave me opportunities here and I took advantage of those. I plan on doing the same thing again out there in Oakland."

By his junior year, he was a starter on offense, catching 45 passes for 911 yards. He was lethal after the catch, averaging 20 yards per catch with 5 of his 10 touchdowns from 50 yards or more.

Over his final two seasons, he caught over 100 passes for 1668 yards. Though he caught more passes as a senior (56), his overall receiving yards went down (757) due in part to injuries at the quarterback position.

Even getting on an NFL radar was going to be tough for Willis. He wasn't invited to any of the numerous college All Star games across the country and he certainly wasn't invited to the scouting combine.

Willis earned his opportunity in part by running a 4.38 40-yard-dash at multiple Pro Days this offseason. He also showed well with a 39.5 vertical jump, a 10'5" broad jump, and 21 reps on the 225 bench press, which is quite impressive for a player his size.

Following his show of athletic prowess at the Emporia Pro Day, he was invited to the Pro Day at the University of Kansas. That is where he caught eye of the Raiders, who drafted two Jayhawks - Ben Heeney (5th round) and Dexter McDonald (7th round).

The speedy Willis wasn't drafted. He wasn't even signed as a priority undrafted free agent. Like every other time in his football life, he would have to prove himself to get his shot. He was invited to Oakland for their rookie minicamp which means he would have to beat out a wide receiver the team had already signed to stick around.

Willis said of his invitation to try out for the Raiders; "They just want to see if I can do it again and be consistent."

The Raiders liked what they saw and immediately following rookie minicamp, he was offered a contract. And his dream continued.

"I've been saying this whole time is that all I've needed is one opportunity and one team to take a look at me," said Willis. "I'm getting that chance and I'm planning on taking full advantage of my opportunity."

Making the most of his opportunity will again require a fight from the bottom up. That process already began the moment he was invited to try out.

Seeing him in rookie mini camp, my first thought was that he doesn't have the stature or bulk one usually expects from an NFL player. Then watching him, his effortless speed and overall athleticism quickly become apparent. In limited viewing, he showed very clean and developed technique as a receiver.

The Raiders have a great deal of competition at the wide receiver position in this year's camp. The Raiders are looking for someone to step up as a kick returner, which is something Willis can provide. That could be his key to carving out a roster spot.