How Georgia landed New Jersey's 'best-kept secret' in the 2020 class
Devin Willock’s high school coaches at New Jersey’s Paramus Catholic often wonder what it would have been like if he was with the program a full four years.
Willock transferred to the parochial school from New Milford, a Group 1 public school, after his sophomore season. In New Jersey, the best football schools are in the Big North Conference’s United Division. While Willock was a dominant player among his peers at New Milford at 6-foot-7 and almost 360 pounds, a lot of body transformation needed to take place before he could become the player who started receiving Power 5 attention as a recruit.
For a kid his size, it was never going to be an overnight transition. But there was never a day Willock wanted to take off. In his first summer at Paramus Catholic, he embraced a full day of workouts, which involved running and lifting in the mornings, with three-hour practices to come.
He kept working, even amid the struggles he endured as a junior playing on both the offensive and defensive lines against much better competition.
And in the spring before his senior season, Paramus Catholic head coach John Whitehead began to notice Willock had what it took to become the kind of prospect who could land an offer anywhere in the country.
“Two things—his size and he’s very coachable,” Whitehead said. “He doesn’t miss a practice. He’s very good in the weight room. He doesn’t say anything on the field. For his size, he’ll get out there and run all day. He’s very coachable, knowledgeable.”
In New Jersey, the best football players all end up in the Big North Conference. Paramus, for example, has churned out Jabrill Peppers, Rashan Gary, and Juwann Bushell-Beatty. The fact that Willock attended New Milford for two years, in retrospect, is a bit of a surprise, seeing how good he turned out to be during his senior season.
Always a big kid, Whitehead said the first task was for Willock to change his body type. When he enrolled at Paramus Catholic, he wasn’t built for major high school or college football. While he played a lot as a junior, he struggled at times against the better competition. He wasn’t as quick yet. He was in the process of losing a lot of body fat. But never once did Willock complain.
“He was going up against good kids,” Whitehead said. “I think he realized, ‘Hey I have to get in shape and I have to get much better if I’m going to compete at this level.’ He did. He took to it. He’s a worker, he’s not going to shy away.”
Whitehead estimated that Willock lost about eight or nine inches from his abdominal area over the winter of his junior season. Willock was being guided in the weight room by strength coach Chris Maldonado, who brought a college-style approach to Paramus Catholic’s strength and conditioning program. From the moment he arrived at Paramus Catholic, Willock was instructed to run a lot more than he ever had before. The weightlifting exercises were drastically different. As he lost body fat, the muscles in his back, chest and arms started to show more. His feet became quicker.
“Once he got going, he never looked back at all,” Maldonado said. “He would like to say, ‘It was all gas no brakes.’ He knew what he was here for. He knew what he wanted to accomplish. In that first year we got Devin, he came in around 360 pounds. Going into his senior year he was around 335. We melted a lot of that baby fat off of him. It impacted his production and level of play. He felt much better. He wasn’t as sluggish. His feet were moving better. He was stronger.”
Maldonado also noted the physical transformation aided the mental side of his game, too.
“He was more confident,” Maldonado said. “A lot of people underestimate the psychological approach that goes into competition. That’s a huge deal. If you’re not as confident or you don’t feel as good as you can, you’re not going to produce as well. I think that’s what changed everything for him.”
When college programs first got a look at Willock as a junior, they told his high school coaches that they wanted to see how he handled his weight. Would he go from the 350-range to 380 pounds? Or could he cut it down to the mid-330s? Once the weight started trending in the right direction, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Rutgers and Penn State, among others, all offered. But Willock had two particular dream schools in mind -- Miami and Georgia. With Miami, this was due to Willock having family in South Florida. As for Georgia, he also has an aunt and uncle who live nearby in Gainesville. Miami was interested but never offered. Georgia, which still had Sam Pittman as its offensive line coach at the time, offered but instructed Willock to take some time before committing. Willock wanted to do so on the spot. But as he waited, Georgia ended up filling the available spots in the 2020 class.
“He was upset about it,” Maldonado said. “When it comes to this recruiting stuff, it’s hard not to take it personally. But Devin does a good job of not letting his emotions get the best of him. He’s very level-headed and even-keeled. In the beginning, he was a little disappointed but it never affected anything when they came back into the picture.”
Willock didn’t dwell on the matter and continued to transform his body leading up to the start of the 2019 season. Maldonado said Willock was unanimously voted by his peers to be a team captain with Whitehead crediting his leadership throughout the offseason.
With Georgia no longer an option at the time, Willock committed to Penn State, a place he felt more than comfortable at. And as the 2019 high school season kept going, Willock kept turning heads on the gridiron.
Maldonado believes Willock’s performance against St. Joseph’s Regional, a 21-14 loss, was the one that finally put him on the map when it came to being a legitimate college prospect.
“I thought that game was Devin (saying), ‘I deserve every offer I have, I earned it all,’” Maldonado said. “That game, he was matched up primarily against Amin Vanover, a Penn State (signee). Devin really showed up that week. You could watch the film yourself and come to the conclusions you like, but Devin was mauling kids all day long in that game. He was manhandling people. That game showed he was a Power 5, Division 1 recruit, without a doubt.”
Whitehead said he was most impressed by Willock’s individual performance in a loss against Bergen Catholic, when he was forced to match up against defensive lineman Tywone Malone, New Jersey’s top-rated player in the class of 2021. While Willock primarily played on the offensive line as a senior, he was asked to play defense against Bergen Catholic as well.
“I said, ‘He’s come into his own and he’s legit now,’” Whitehead said. “Tywone is legit too, he’s the real deal. For us to have a kid who could hold his own with him, that was tremendous.”
When the high school season ended, no one could have predicted Georgia would re-enter the picture. But as the craziness of college football unfolded, Pittman took the Arkansas head coaching job and offensive line prospect Josh Braun decommitted. This opened up a scholarship on the offensive line, with Georgia deciding to target Willock again. From there, the Bulldogs, with new offensive line coach Matt Luke, put on the full-court press to get back in Willock’s good graces.
“There was one week where they sent four coaches to the school to pass by to visit him on campus, on top of sending coaches to his house to have an in-house visit,” Maldonado said. “They were really all over him and reeled him back in.”
Regardless of what happened previously, Willock was never going to pass up an offer to play at Georgia.
“When they (offered), he jumped on that immediately,” Whitehead said. “It wasn’t even a discussion or debate. The Penn State people were really nice and Penn State is really popular around here. We had a lineman at Penn State a couple of years ago. But when Georgia called him it wasn’t even a debate.”
Willock ended his high school career as a consensus three-star recruit. With the trajectory he took in two years at Paramus Catholic, his coaches can only wonder what kind of recruiting attention he would have received if he was there for a full four years.
Both Whitehead and Maldonado believe Georgia got a steal in landing Willock. Maldonado called him the “best-kept secret in the state of New Jersey” when they got him to the school two years ago.
Now, Willock is taking that competitive fire to Georgia, where his Paramus Catholic coaches believe he will thrive.
“Without a doubt, if we would’ve had Devin as a freshman, he would’ve ended up with offers from Alabama, Clemson, you name it,” Maldonado said. “He would’ve had it all. He would’ve started that process of development way sooner. We got him pretty late in the game, going into his junior year. Sometimes it works out for people, sometimes it doesn’t. In Devin’s case, it worked out.”