Willis uplifts rushing attack vs. Hamline

St. Olaf football finally broke through for its first conference victory of the season, claiming a pulse-pounding 40-33 Homecoming win over Hamline. The Oles dominated on the ground as the rushing game exploded behind the dominant performance of running back and kick retuner Khayleb Willis ’20, who rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown, averaging an impeccable 4.9 yards per carry on 32 total rush attempts. With his emergence, St. Olaf can potentially achieve a more balanced offensive attack together with quarterback Jack Goldstein ’18, presenting a more dynamic, fearsome offense against future opponents.

Q: Describe some of your football background. How did you get into it? How did you know it was something you’d want to pursue even after high school? 

A: I’ve played football for the majority of my life, 16 years. My family has a rich background in football. My dad and uncles all played football at the collegiate level and some even at the pro level. Also, my oldest brother is trying out for the NFL this upcoming spring. I knew it was something I wanted to pursue after high school because it was always my dream to play college level football. I believe seeing all the hard work and dedication my brother puts into football really inspires me to work as hard as I do. My brothers are my biggest role models.

Q: What do you feel is your greatest strength as a running back? Where do you think you could still improve? How will you go about improving it?

A: I think my greatest strength as a running back is my speed and toughness. I may not be the biggest running back in the MIAC (5ft 5’ – 160lbs) but I am definitely the fastest and I think I can take a hit as good as anybody. I think I can still improve in my blocking skills. I will improve that by hitting the weight room to get stronger and getting my technique down during practice. 

Q: What was the biggest difference maker that contributed to your breakout performance?

A: I think the biggest difference maker in my breakout performance was the way in which the team practiced all week. We practiced with a lot of energy and enthusiasm which translated to game day. And of course I give all the credit to the big boys up front [the offensive linemen]. They opened up holes for me so big a car could drive through. Our chemistry is really starting to pick up; I foresee a lot of big runs in the future.

Q: How does kick returning compare to rushing as a back? What elements of kick returning helped you succeed as a running back? Which do you prefer?

A: I love running back, but there’s nothing like the first kick return of the game to set the tone for the team. I think being the kick returner has helped my vision at running back. It allows me to see the open holes and hit them as fast and hard as I can. It definitely benefits me as a running back.

Q: You had nearly double the amount of carries against Hamline than your previous high for this season against Luther. Does this signal a shift towards a more aggressive rushing attack for you guys? What effect did this have on recovery after an increased physical toll?

A: I’m not sure if this signals a shift towards a more aggressive rushing attack but if it helps the team win more games then I’m all for it. I think our coaches do a great job every week breaking down the film of our opponent and making sure we expose their weaknesses on game day. That week they believed our running game would be effective and they were correct. But if the O-line continues to play as good as they did, then I don’t see why we wouldn’t run the ball whenever we want. With all the carries I had, I think I had a few more nicks and bruises compared to other games, but at the end of the game, knowing we won and seeing all my teammates and fans happy, I really didn’t notice any major physical toll.