Ron Willoughby went the extra mile for the University at Buffalo when it came time to pick his college destination.
UB returned the favor by being the only Mid-American Conference team to offer him an athletic grant entering his senior year of high school.
The match is paying big dividends for both sides now that the 6-foot-4 junior wide receiver has had a couple of years to develop in the UB program.
Willoughby enjoyed a breakout performance in UB’s season-opening victory over Duquesne on Saturday. He caught 10 passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the fourth quarter of the 38-28 decision.
Nobody in the UB program thinks it was a fluke. Willoughby was one of the best players in the Bulls’ preseason camp.
“He has a good body frame, good leverage, being able to go over maybe some smaller corners,” UB coach Jeff Quinn said. “I’m real pleased to see him have that kind of day, and we’re going to need more of those.”
Willoughby impressed some UB assistant coaches in the summer of 2010 when they saw him participating at Ohio State’s football camp in Columbus, Ohio. The UB camp was the very next day.
“They said it’d be smart if you came to our camp tomorrow,” Willoughby said. “It was a 10 o’clock camp. Buffalo is about four hours from my house. So I left my house at 4:30 in the morning. I was pretty exhausted, because the Ohio State camp was all day, eight hours, and I got home late. But I got here and made some plays.”
Quinn offered Willoughby a grant on the spot, and Willoughby accepted.
Willoughby starred in both football and basketball at Avon Lake, Ohio, just west of Cleveland. He had made visits to Mid-American Conference rivals Bowling Green, Toledo, Ohio and Akron, but none of them had made him a firm offer.
“The MAC schools were kind of saying we don’t know about your speed,” Willoughby said.
Quinn says he took one look at Willoughby and recognized he might have a replacement for 6-foot-3 Alex Neutz, who finished his career last season No. 3 on UB’s all-time receiving list.
“When I first laid eyes on Ron that’s the first thing I did, a comparison,” Quinn said. “We always do as coaches. You say, ‘What’s this kid look like compared to what we already have in our program?’ That’s what I saw in Ron. Great concentration. Strong hands. He’s got the bigger size I like playing that position.”
Willoughby went on to have a big senior season in both football and basketball. He scored 46 points in one hoops game as a senior and made first-team all-region in Ohio. He had scholarship offers from some Division II basketball schools.
“I will always place a high value on a kid who’s a multiple-sport kid,” Quinn said. “Why? Because he’s a competitor. That says a lot to me.”
Willoughby has improved his skills the past two years. For one, he watched and learned from Neutz.
“There’s a lot of little tricks he taught me, stuff you wouldn’t even think of,” Willoughby said. “I don’t want to give anything away, but route-running, looking back for the quarterback, using the head and eyes, footwork. Little things that don’t really seem like it makes a big deal but it’s huge.”
Willoughby also says he has gotten faster working with strength coach Greg Pyszczynski.
“I put a lot of work in over the summer,” he said. “I wasn’t the fastest kid coming in. Coach G did a great job with me this whole summer. We worked on power, squatting, benching. I worked on the sleds. It has paid off.”
“You get deceived by those tall guys,” said UB receivers coach Marty Spieler. “Alex Neutz didn’t look like a burner, but he ran a 4.5 40 for NFL scouts. Ron’s covering a lot of ground.”
Both of Willoughby’s TDs came on “go” routes in which he beat the cornerback down the sideline. He looked like a rebounding power forward on his longest catch, a 46-yard post pattern from Joe Licata.
Licata targeted Willoughby 16 times. The two have been roommates since arriving at UB.
Licata has big-time basketball credits of his own. He set the New York State prep record for career three-pointers while at Williamsville South.
Asked if he was aware of Licata’s hoops exploits, Willoughby said: “He brings it up all the time. I had to stay at his house the first summer I was here, and I slept next to that trophy every single night.”
Who’s better on the hardwood?
“Joe’s more of a shooter,” Willoughby said. “I’m more of a slasher, and he plays no defense. So he could not guard me.”
UB is hoping MAC cornerbacks have the same problem.