OU football: Willis focused on staying in the moment heading into final game

Dec. 28—There's no shortage of opportunity for the Sooners to be distracted entering Thursday's matchup against Florida State.

Fifth-year senior Brayden Willis is no exception.

Willis made the decision to return to school after last season and it's had a positive impact on his NFL Draft stock. Earlier this month the tight end accepted an invitation to the 2023 Senior Bowl, after setting career-highs in catches, receiving yards (456) and touchdowns (7) this season.

Willis was invited alongside teammates Eric Gray, Wanya Morris and Jalen Redmond, but is the only one of the four to be participating in the Cheez-It Bowl on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. in Orlando, Florida.

Even with the opt-outs, Willis said the team is entering the game motivated to finish the season on a strong note.

"Guys are coming into this bowl game thankful and hungry," Willis said. "We haven't had the season that we thought we were going to have. That just gives us one more opportunity to close it out the right way and close it out how we want to close it. Guys came out here thankful to be on the trip. There are a lot of hungry guys on the practice field and we've seen it all week."

The Sooners were able to showcase Willis' versatility in the first year in offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby's offense.

Willis was on the field in a variety of ways this season — as a pass-catcher, a blocker, a running back and even becoming the team's the de-facto quarterback out of the wildcat formation in the Red River Rivalry game against Texas when Dillon Gabriel was sidelined with an injury.

The following week, he caught five passes for a career-high 102 yards receiving and a score against Kansas.

He was third on the team in receptions this season with 35 and leads the team in receiving touchdowns with seven. The 6-4, 240-pound tight end had closed out the regular season with seven receptions for 74 yards and two touchdowns against Texas Tech.

A second team All-Big 12 selection, the Sooners will benefit from Willis' participation in the bowl game, and Willis said his focus remains on finishing out his career with a win.

"I definitely need to be in the moment," Willis said. "My team needs me, leadership-wise and playing-wise. It's definitely set in a little bit, but I definitely am like I need to push it to the side and have to worry about being in the now and being where my feet are."

The practices leading up to the bowl game are often an important time for the younger players on the roster and Willis has continue to embrace his role as a leader and captain.

The Sooners will need to count on several of those players to step up into larger roles this week. OU head coach Brent Venables said he's been pleased with the way the team has prepared leading up to the matchup against a solid Florida State team.

The Seminoles enter the Cheez-It Bowl having won five straight games behind a suffocating defense that ranks second in the country against the pass.

"They're hungry," OU head coach Brent Venables said. "They're motivated. They have a lot to prove. This is, again, a great opportunity. One that they recognize the opponent, the quality of the opponent, the stage that we're going to play on, and an opportunity to finish."