Damion Willis of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the preseason game against New York Giants at Paul Brown Stadium last Thursday in Cincinnati. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)
Photo: Bobby Ellis
Photo: Bobby Ellis

Bengals tap rookie receiver to replace injured Green

Damion Willis was caught by surprise when a group of media members approached him mid-walk in the Cincinnati Bengals locker room Sunday, asking questions about how it feels to be named a starter.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor slipped the information that Willis will be the starting X receiver Week 1 at Seattle into his weekly press conference just 15 minutes prior, but the undrafted rookie wasn’t even aware he would be making the team. He was counting on needing the fourth preseason game Thursday against the Colts to prove himself worthy of a 53-man roster spot.

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By Monday, Willis still hadn’t been told he had earned a spot and he doesn’t plan on celebrating anything until cuts are made Saturday, and it’s official. However, his initial reaction to finding out was as authentic as it could have been.

“It feels good,” he said. “It shows that he really believes in me. I found out last week in the walk-through that I was going to start (the third preseason game) and you just told me again that I was starting. I went through walk-throughs with the ones but I really didn’t know. I’m just be going out there.”

Taylor informed some players Friday they would be Week 1 starters but said he wants Willis to keep working like he hasn’t earned anything yet.

“I don’t think he needs to be as worried about (cut-down day) as he might think,” Taylor joked. “It’s good for those guys to think that nothing is guaranteed. He needs to have that mindset he hasn’t made it. … He still has to stay hungry. He needs to have that mindset that he’s still competing for a spot on this roster.”

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Although Willis doesn’t consider anything secure, the ability to lock up a starting spot at this point is no small task for a guy who didn’t even get an invite to the NFL combine.

Willis’ path to NFL starter is an especially unique one. He started his college career at East Mississippi Community College, then ended up at Troy, where he was an All-Sun Belt first team pick as a senior last fall when he had 56 catches for 876 yards and 10 touchdowns.

A few months ago, he couldn’t even imagine getting the chance to start in the NFL.

“I would have thought that was crazy because I went undrafted,” he said. “I would’ve really thought that was crazy. It’s very good news. It’s something I’ve been driven by my whole life, to play in the league. The only goal I was focusing on right now was making the 53-man roster. And then the next goal is to be getting actual playing time. So when I just found that out, I’m really happy. Really blessed.”

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Willis is filling the spot where A.J. Green normally would play. Green injured his ankle the first day of training camp and is expected to miss at least one or two games, but he’s still moving around the locker room with a scooter and his foot in a boot.

Green’s absence, along with John Ross missing the first four weeks of practices because of hamstring tightness, enabled guys like Willis a chance to step up and show what they can do. Taylor didn’t know much about Willis when he arrived but the receivers coaches liked him and wanted to give him a chance. He’s stood out since the offseason workout program and has been the top receiver this preseason, recording 114 yards and one touchdown on eight catches over the last two preseason games.

“He’s been steadily improving,” Taylor said. “I wouldn’t say that there’s been any setbacks. You see undrafted rookie receivers that often times flash, and then take a step back, and then they flash, and then they take a step back. That hasn’t been the case with him. He’s continued to make plays every time we’ve called his number.”

Wide receiver Tyler Boyd said Willis’ ability to go up in the air and make plays stood out to him right away.

“He faced a lot of adversity,” Boyd said. “Fortunately, he was one of the guys who stayed strong and stayed healthy and made plays when we had the games. I feel pretty confident in his game and I know he does as well. I can just feel the energy around him. The guys feel the confidence in him and they believe in him. I’m ready to go out there and ball with him.”

Willis said he never doubted his ability but knew as someone who has flown under the radar most of his career, he was really going to have to impress to keep getting more opportunities. Now they just keep coming.

“I’m not gonna lie, it does mean a lot (to earn the coaches’ confidence),” Willis said. “I’ve been really trying to work hard, but I know I had a lot to prove. I knew I was gonna have a chip on my shoulder, especially being undrafted. I didn’t know how many opportunities I was going to get. I was fortunate and I was blessed to be able to get those opportunities, and I’m glad I’ve been able to take advantage of them.”

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