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By LARRY VAUGHT
Junior college defensive back Nate Willis still has two online courses to finish to earn his degree from Arizona Western College so that he will be eligible for the 2013 season at the University of Kentucky.
The 6-0, 180-pound Willis signed with UK in February. He’s ranked as the No. 3 junior college cornerback in the nation by 247Sports.com. He had 19 tackles, one interception and five pass breakups last season after making 31 tackles, one tackle-for-loss and three interceptions his freshman season.
Arizona Western defensive coordinator/associate head coach Jerry Dominguez remains “optimistic” that Willis will be on UK coach Mark Stoops’ roster this season.
“He has to finish two summer school classes,” Dominguez said Monday. “He’s trying to get finished up now. He’s in those classes now. He should get done Aug. 1 and try to get there for training (preseason) camp .
“The original plan obviously was for him to be there for summer workouts. But he had two classes he was not passing and had to drop them and take them over.”
Willis is back home in Florida taking the online classes and also working out on his own to prepare for UK’s season.
“Obviously the coaches from Kentucky and myself are working on making sure he is taking the right classes to transfer back here,” Dominguez said. “I think it will all work out. I don’t see why it wouldn’t. I think he is in good shape. He is enrolled in classes and I’m confident he’ll pass them both.
“He is a smart kid. He was trying to take seven classes in the spring to finish early and it was just a bit overwhelming. He passed five, but he has two left. It was quite a load for him to try to carry. He almost made it, though.”
Willis says he is “doing very well” in both his classes.
“It is looking real good,” Willis said. “Basically I am two weeks away from finishing up my classes. I am passing with all A’s and B’s. I can’t let myself down or everybody else down. I am knocking things out.
Dominguez said the UK coaches knew completely about Willis’ academic situation when he signed with UK.
“The coaches knew this might happen. It was always a situation where it could have come down to this,” Dominguez said. “We were fairly optimistic he would finish in May and all thought he would get it done.”
Willis helped Arizona Western go 8-2 in 2012 and win the El Toro Bowl, the team’s first bowl game win in more than 40 years. The year before Arizona Western finished the regular season No. 1 in the nation and lost the national championship game.
Willis, who also returned kicks for Arizona Western, figured to have a chance for immediate playing time under new defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot. Dominguez admits not being on this campus “hurts his chances” for playing immediately.
“He couldn’t be working out with the coaches (at Kentucky) now but he would have been able to get in and start learning the verbiage as far as the plays and work on learning the playbook,” Dominguez said. “Not being there does hurt him a little bit because he is not there to learn and get in football shape by working out with the strength coach. They do specific workouts that the strength coach can facilitate. Nate will come in there blind a little bit. I think he is talented enough where he will play, but it may take a couple of games for him to get everything under his belt.”
Kentucky’s lack of secondary depth could work in Willis’ favor even though he will be reporting only to UK only a month before the season opens.
“That’s probably why they (UK coaches) have stayed on Nate and have stayed patient with his summer school,” Dominguez said. “No doubt he is a big-time corner even in the SEC. His talent will speak for itself once he gets there and why they are patient. They are frustrated, but they are going to wait it out with him because he’s that talented and we all think he’s going to make it.”
Dominguez hopes all works out with Willis and that UK will return to Arizona Western to recruit. The school has had 46 Division I signees in the last three years and expects to have another talented roster this year.
“The Kentucky coaches have impressed us. They have been great with Nate and we hope to see them back recruiting more of our players,” Dominguez said.