Brayden Willis was an absolute Swiss army knife during his time at Oklahoma.
The star Sooners tight end lined up nearly everywhere imaginable: as an H-back, as an in-line tight end, out of the slot or out of the backfield. He experienced a breakout season in 2022, catching 39 passes for 514 yards and a team-high 7 touchdowns. Named a second-team All-Big 12 member for his effort, Willis has proven himself to be one of the most entertaining weapons in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Willis spoke with Windy City Gridiron about his versatility, his experiences at the Senior Bowl and Combine, his podcast The Podcast on the Prairie, and more.
JI: You lined up in a bunch of different alignments for Oklahoma. Can you speak to that versatility and what goes into being able to play all those positions?
BW: I was asked to do a lot at Oklahoma, from every position. Being able to do those things really just helped me become a better football player, because you have to know the game of football really well, right? You have to know certain coverages, and you have to know how your offense runs, [and] you have to know how the defense that you’re playing against runs, because when you’re playing all these different positions, you don’t want to have to think about too much when you have already a lot on your plate. Being able to play all those different positions, I learned different things from a receiver’s aspect or from an offensive lineman’s aspect, or even from the backfield’s point of view. [It] developed me as far as a football player in terms of the X’s and O’s, and I was just blessed to be able to be in a position where I could do all those things, because I think it benefited me very heavily in this process.
JI: What was it like taking part in both the Senior Bowl and the Combine?
BW: Man, they were great. They were both the things that I had been looking forward to since I was a young kid, so they were like a dream come true. Especially the Combine, being able to get there, being I’ve watched it every year. Being able to watch it every year growing up, seeing that, and finally being able to go out there and compete in it, being alongside so many great players, in my position and outside of my position, and just being able to talk to NFL coaches and staff members, it was a blessing. It was a great experience. I’m just glad that I got to be able to experience it.
JI: Is there any consensus on where teams want you to line up most at the NFL level?
BW: I think it more so depends on the team. I will say that most of the teams that have talked to me have said that I can play multiple positions but still do think I can play a true ‘Y’, just they can move me around a lot more if they really need me to. They saw during the Senior Bowl that I could do a lot of in-line blocking, and I could hold my own in there. Like I said, a lot of people see me as this or that; it just depends on the team, really, and how their offense uses tight ends and H-backs, or whatever they use. Some teams are similar, some teams are not. Like I said, it just really depends on the team.
JI: A lot of people have raved about your value in the locker room. Can you speak to how you’ve grown as a leader during your time at Oklahoma?
BW: At Oklahoma, as you can imagine, you come across a lot of great leaders, a lot of great players, some of them being guys like Jalen Hurts to Kenneth Murray and all types of guys. I mean, I played with a bunch of great leaders, so I’ve seen a lot of different leadership styles, taking bits and pieces from every single guy that I’ve played with that has been a leader on the team. I think one of the biggest aspects that I tried to incorporate in my leadership, and that I think is really important, is the ability to reach everybody, different types of people. As you know, there’s different types of people in life, and not everybody is the same. You can’t talk to everybody the same. Some guys, you have to kind of chew them out, you have to push them hard. Other guys, you have to guide them along and talk to them and just give advice. I think the biggest thing for me was being able to reach every corner that locker room and pull everyone together. That was the biggest thing that I’ve learned from some of the guys, coming up through my years at Oklahoma.
JI: What kind of leadership do you think you respond to the best?
BW: I think there’s a fine line. I think there’s a balance. I don’t have a problem with being challenged or being pushed hard, or whatnot. I think people get confused getting challenged and pushed hard with disrespect. It’s just being challenged and pushed hard. I’d probably much rather get pushed hard and challenged, because I think as a man, it turns it tends to bring out the competition in me and make me want to stand up and prove myself as a man. I think that’s the one I would prefer, but I mean, you just have to be a great follower to be a great eventual leader, so I think being able to respond to both styles is great.
JI: I noticed you and your former OU teammate Jeremiah Hall have a podcast, and you guys have a pretty big following. How did that start out?
BW: Yeah, I appreciate that. With the age of NIL and everything going on, I really didn’t want to touch too much NIL stuff when it first came about, because you just didn’t know how it was gonna go. There’s just a lot of gray area. My boy J. Hall came to me and asked me if I wanted to do a podcast, and I just thought it’d be a good opportunity to grow my brand, be able to connect with Sooner Nation better and just be able to put myself out there a little bit better. It wasn’t something that I’ve thought about for years; it was just something [that was] spur of the moment, but it’s been a great opportunity. I’ve done everything that I thought I was going to do with that in terms of growing my brand and connecting with Sooner Nation, and I feel like I’ve gotten decently good at it. If an opportunity presents itself in the future, I’ll be able to do that, as well. But yeah, they all just came to me, asked if I want to do it, I thought it was a good idea. I was like, “man, what could it hurt”, and we ended up doing it.
Over the years, we just kept on presenting things that some of the folks of Sooner Nation liked and just kept on getting bigger and bigger to the point where now, we’re in a position where we have a good following, and we can hand it down to some of the guys in the Oklahoma locker room and still be a part of it. [We’re] handing down not as a gift, but like a forthcoming. If you’re a guy that has good head on his shoulders, that’s a good player, we can give it to you, and you continue that tradition and do same thing down the line. It’s been pretty cool.
JI: Jeremiah went through the same process last year that you are now. Have you been asking him for advice about the pre-draft process?
BW: Yeah, I did that when he was going through it, just knowing the position that I would most likely be in this year. I thought about coming out last year, but I didn’t, and being able to have him as a vessel to be able to ask questions, pick his brain, get more knowledge from him has helped me tremendously in college with this last senior year, and how some of this stuff went for him, and also with going into the next level. It’s been great to have him in my corner, and I can say, I have continuously to this day, asked him for ideas and advice and pointers. It’s great to have him in my corner.
JI: How do you spend your free time outside of football?
BW: I’m a big family man, so I love to spend time with my family. I’m in Texas right now in Frisco, training, and I’m about an hour away from my family, so on weekends, I’ll shoot back to my house, my mom’s house and go hang out with them. [We’re a] big, tight-knit family, so we always have stuff going on. I love other sports. I played all types of sports throughout high school. I love to watch basketball, baseball, [I’m a] big UFC and boxing guy, so I like to watch that, as well. I like to play basketball, as well, outside of football, and I don’t know if it’s shocking [to] most people, but I love pool. I don’t know why I love pool. If I could get my hands on a pool stick and the pool table, I could do that for hours. I don’t know why, it’s random, but I’ll have a pool table in my house. Those are some of my interests. I like some outdoorsy things, too. I don’t mind fishing. My uncle has a lot of land in Texas, so we’ll go out there, fish, hunt and everything. That’s pretty cool, as well.
JI: How did you get into pool? Was that a childhood thing, or was it something you just picked up?
BW: I picked it up about my sophomore year in college. I had a friend — he’s a little bit older than me; he’s like three years older than me — and I [go to his] house, and he’s got a pool table in his house. One day, I went over there and saw the pool table, and he wants to play, and we got on there. I was horrible at first, like anybody will be when they first start playing pool. He started showing me all these tips and tricks, and I thought it was just so cool. I like strategy and stuff, so I just thought it was super cool. I’ll go over there and play against him. Eventually, when [Oklahoma head coach Brent] Venables came in, he put a pool table into the players lounge. We run pool games and all types of stuff on that, too. It just came about in college, but I’ve really gotten into it.
JI: I’m terrible at pool. Give me one bit of advice so that I can get better.
BW: I would say for anybody that wants to play pool, after you initially break, you might pot, say, a stripe or something, right? I scope the table to see how the balls break, because the stripes [might be] going in, and you might have one-ball advantage. If the solids are placed in a better situation so that you can pop more balls, I will go for solids. They’re just set up better, [so] go for solids, because then you can win the game faster. The stripes might have potted a strike, but they might all be in one cluster, so it’s gonna be hard to break. You’re gonna have to break them up, and you’re gonna have to make great shots. If the solids are all in places where you can easily pot them, then you’re in a great situation.
JI: Let’s say I’m an NFL general manager. What would I be getting if I drafted you to my team?
BW: If you draft me, you’ll be getting a great player. You’ll be getting a versatile player that can really be play anywhere you want: a chess piece, a mismatch. You can plug-and-play me and know I can do whatever you want me to do. Also, you’re getting a great locker room guy, a guy that is going to be a leader one day, and a guy that cares about his team, cares about the guys and organization that is ultra loyal to everyone that’s around him.
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