Malcolm Willis does not field nearly as many questions about the NCAA sanctions as he did at this time last year, but he insists Penn State’s rallying cry remains the same.
“It’s still us against the world,” said the senior safety Thursday morning at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. “That’s still our mentality.”
It isn’t so much the sanctions that makes Willis say this but more so the fallout from the NCAA penalties.
“We’ve put it past us,” he said. We’re working to move forward, so should everyone else.”
At the same time, he feels there are decreased expectations from the outside looking in and emphasizes that his teammates are using that as motivation.
“A lot of critics think we shouldn’t win any games,” Willis said. “We’re going to be the underdog in a lot of our games. We like to be the underdog because it puts less pressure on us.”
“We feel like we have something to prove. We’re on a one way train this year, and we’re making 12 stops.”
This summer may be calmer than last, but Willis described the Nittany Lions’ mindset as intense and focused. After addressing the underdog status, he opened up about a one-on-one meeting with Bill O’Brien a few weeks ago.
Coaches cannot supervise football related activities during the summer per NCAA rules, but players will sometimes drop by a coach’s office to check in.
“I told him I’ve never been around a team where so many guys are willing to do so much extra work,” said Willis. “Once we’re done class, somebody shoots somebody a text and there’s a bunch of guys out there working on footwork, ball security, receivers running extra routes.”
Willis was a starter last season, but now he is learning to be a leader in the absence of Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill, Stephon Morris, and other contributors along the 2012 defense.
It’s a responsibility, he said, that started shortly after the overtime victory over Wisconsin.
“Right before winter workouts started, you could tell what guys were becoming new leaders. Guys leave and new people have to step up.”
Another year into a new defensive system, he feels more comfortable but will have to battle with junior Ryan Keiser for his starting job.
“You have to work just as hard no matter where you are [on the depth chart],” he said. “If I play well, I know I’ll have a job.”
Off the gridiron, Willis received a degree in Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management in May with a long-term goal of one day managing his own personal training business.
“It’s hard to succeed in academics or work life if you don’t enjoy it. Regardless of technology, people are always going to want to be in shape.”
Willis said he is working towards a second degree in criminology, but with much of his academic coursework complete, he will be able to focus on football in the fall.
Before training camp gets underway in less than two weeks, this was one more chance for him to speak up about the program.
As for the opportunity to represent the Nittany Lions in Chicago, “It’s an honor for me. They asked me to participate, within five minutes I told them I would love to. It’s an honor to come out here, represent my family, and my team, and my university.”