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Oklahoma tight end coach on Brayden Willis: ‘The first thing that comes to my mind is just that dog mentality’

Our draft interviews continue as we focus on the 49ers prospects

Oklahoma v Texas Tech Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Just a year removed from drafting an impact player in the seventh round, the 49ers look to make it an annual tradition with their selection of Oklahoma tight end Brayden Willis.

He was a dynamic player who offered an abundance of versatility for the Sooners offense, which leaves plenty of room for guessing when it comes to the vision the 49ers have in mind for how he will be used in the NFL.

Will he be more of a traditional tight end, or perhaps is he the succession plan to be the jack of all trades offensive weapon that Kyle Juszczyk has been for the last several seasons.

To help answer these questions and get a better read on what can be expected from Willis, I spoke to someone who not only is familiar with him, but also the team that drafted him

Joe John Finley is the tight ends coach at Oklahoma, but he also spent three years as a tight end with the 49ers organization from 2008-2010. Coach Finley was kind enough to share some insight from his experiences coaching Willis, detailing exactly the kind of player the 49ers are getting with him.

To start, I asked Coach Finley about what is the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks about Willis:

“The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about Brayden is just that dog mentality. You come across a bunch of great football players in your life and one thing they all have in common is they all have that killer mentality. He took that into every part of his life, he was the hardest worker on the team, and he was a leader through his actions.

He wore out our jugs machine, I think he caught 10,000 balls the last two summers that he was here. And thats a lot of balls to catch over the summer in addition to all of those things we ask those guys to do, go to class, their workouts, and seven on seven, routes on air, all that good stuff. He actually caught 10,000 per summer which is unbelievable.

That’s the biggest thing, he’s a professional. I’ve been around pros and tried to instill that into him because I knew what his goals were, and he did that in every aspect of football whether that was practice, meeting time, weight training, recovery, everything he did was trying to be a pro so that when he got to the next level that it wasn’t new to him, that he was ready to go. Extremely proud of the work that he put in and so happy that it worked out for him.”

After working closely with Willis, I was eager to hear if there is an area of his game that Coach Finley feels has been overlooked or might fly under the radar due to some of his other strengths:

“I think his ability to separate and run routes. As the season went on we threw it to him more and more in third down situations, if we could try to find a way to get him one on one with anybody, we felt confident that he was going to win at the top of the route and create separation to make an easy throw for the quarterback.

But also if the ball was a competitive play he was so dang strong that he was going to find a way to come down with it, and that’s what quarterbacks love, especially at the tight end position. Guys that are not covered even when they are covered because they are so strong.”

Given the fact that Willis lined up all over the place during his time at Oklahoma, I asked Coach Finley to provide a bit more clarity as to what his role within the Sooner offense was:

“I think it was very similar to the guys you have, we watch a lot of the 49ers tight ends because I think they are very well coached. Just being able to put him in every possible situation, so most of the time he was in the wing for us.

People call that an H-Back but that’s pretty much what a tight end does these days, he lines up in the backfield, he’s in protection, he’s in the wing, he’s cutting off the C gap and blocking at the point of attack. We would also split him out wide, very rarely did we go 10 personnel because we had a guy like him that we could get into spread pictures and be the slot receiver and fill in just as good if not better than having a receiver in there.

So his versatility and understanding of the game, he’s a former quarterback in high school so he’s got a great understanding of concepts and the big picture of what we’re trying to do. For us, and really for any offense, when you have a tight end that understands what you’re trying to do it makes it a lot easier to operate. You don’t have to be so specific whenever you’re coaching him when he understands protections and route concepts.”

Coach Finley also mentioned that Willis was used as a wildcat quarterback in the Sooners' offense because of how dangerous he was with the ball in his hands:

“We used him as a wildcat quarterback when we needed him. That’s the kind of athlete that he is and the kind of runner that he is. We felt like short yardage situations, goal line situations, if we put the ball in his hands he’s going to go and get one or two yards even if there is someone who isn’t blocked.”

I followed that up by asking Coach Finley what he thought was the biggest area of growth that Willis displayed during his time coaching him:

“Just allowing him to go win on routes late in his career was something people didn’t understand he was able to do. We got to spend a lot more individual time in the run game blocking and in pass protection, just having that individual time to where he could work on his craft in that area really is what made him a dominant blocker. Not that he was a bad blocker before, but obviously when you get to work on it you’re going to be a lot better than when you just trust your athleticism to go block somebody.”

With Coach Finley having personal experience playing tight end at the NFL level, I was curious to know how his own experiences factored in to the way he was coaching Willis at Oklahoma while also getting him prepared for the jump into the pros:

“Everything we do is trying to prepare those guys to play against the best player possible. Whenever we watch type it was like hey man you’re blocking this guy, but you can see if you put your hand here it doesn’t matter who you’re blocking, you’re going to be able to block him. That was the point of emphasis for him coming back that last year, you’re not coming back to be a good player, you’re coming back to be a dominant player, and that’s what he was.

So sharing my experiences was nice, rarely do you have a tight end coach that actually played tight end at the highest level. I got to be around some really really good tight ends and tight end coaches. Just being able to teach him the different ways to block people, there’s more ways than one to skin a cat, and he was smart enough to use those different tools we were able to put in his tool belt.

Leaning more on Coach Finley’s expertise at the position, I asked him what he thinks is a good indicator for future success for the tight ends, who maybe don’t have a high volume of targets or receiving production because of the scheme they play in at the college level.

He pointed to rounding out the skill set as a whole, and showing teams at the next level that you can handle the wide range of responsibilities even if you don’t have the gaudy box score numbers:

“I think you just look at what all they do. Whenever you are in an offense like ours, you’re going to see everything that you want to see from a tight end from our guys. Thats what you saw with Brayden, he was a six year vet, we could do so much with the guy and he did it all well. It’s not like he could just go catch passes but didn’t want to block.

Him just being able to do every single part of what those NFL guys do, with how it’s trending the NFL is going big time to these tight end mismatches. At this level sometimes you can find mismatches outside and you want to exploit those guys, but it’s like i tell my tight ends all the time, if we play the Dallas Cowboys or the San Francisco 49ers tomorrow, our best matchup on the field is going to be the tight end vs the linebacker. I think just seeing how much they can handle is very valuable.”

Coach Finley also helps oversee the special teams unit at Oklahoma, so I asked him about the background Willis has contributing in the third phase of the game:

“He was on the punt team and kick return and he would have been on the kickoff and punt return teams if we had let him, but we were trying to take care of him. Like I said he took that attitude into everything he did, he wasn’t just wanting to play offense like special teams wasn’t for him. He was on our shield on the punt team, I call the punt team the all star team of your football team.

If you’re on that team you’re one of the most trusted guys on this football team, and he was on the back line of that. We trusted him to make calls and be the last line of defense for blocking the kick. He was back in the back end on kickoff return, he did a great job, he’s got great size and great physicality. He’s never going to back down from anybody, you know those kickoff collisions can be pretty big and he never shied away from it for one second.”

As we continued our discussion, I asked Coach Finley if there was anything that stood out about Willis from their GPS tracking data:

“Absolutely, you have a total load in terms of how hard and how fast they’re changing direction, and how hard they’re going all the time, and he was always among the top five guys on the team as far as practicing. He practice just like he played, and thats why he played so well because it was all slow for him, because thats what he did every single day.”

Coach Finley then detailed why that data was so important to the staff, as it was a valuable tool to help prevent Willis from overexerting himself on account of his insatiable work ethic:

“I just listen to the person that runs it and if they tell me he’s doing too much and he’s about to get hurt i’d pull his ass off the field. Especially that last year, just wanted to make sure he was healthy because I knew how he practiced, I knew what kind of player he was, and I knew if he wasn’t in on the actual play, he was going to be paying attention and taking a mental rep. Like I said earlier, he’s a true pro. Whenever he’s not in he was back there taking the mental rep, and you don’t get that from too many guys at this level.”

While we were on the topic of the mental side of the game, I asked Coach Finley to elaborate on some of his observations of how Willis prepared when it came to watching film and game planning for opponents:

“We get to see how much film these guys watch because they’re always watching on the iPad, and he was always up there among the top three on the team, always watching practice, watching the opponent. Coming in with ideas on how to beat different guys, and whenever you do that you just naturally absorb football. Once he picked up the offense, we got to sit down and talk some X’s and O’s and what these coaches are going to ask you when they interview you.

You need to be able to talk it and understand what the reads are, what is your favorite play, why is it your favorite play, and what is the quarterbacks read on that play. What is the protection. Every single thing that great football players know, you listen to guys like Jason Witten or Greg Olsen and they can tell you exactly what every person on the field is doing because they’ve been playing so long, and that’s where Brayden grew a lot over the past year. He didn’t have to think too much about what to do, now he was thinking about why we were doing it and how we could do it better.”

Keeping consistent with the topic of growth, I asked Coach Finley what area of Willis’ game he can work on the most that will help elevate his ceiling as he makes the transition into the NFL:

“Being able to work first and second level releases. At that level especially it’s a little bit different than here, they get five yards to try and beat you up. They do a great job of trying to do that, i’ve told him you have to do a great job of getting through the first five yards untouched. He’s done a great job of putting some different tools in his toolbox where he can get through there and he’s still playing fast. I think thats the biggest area thats going to be a little bit different for him that he needs to focus on, and I know he has been.”

Given that Coach Finley has also been a tight end who made the jump from Oklahoma to the NFL, I asked him what makes him believe that Willis has what it takes to be a contributing player for a team as good as the 49ers are:

“I think it’s the whole package. First and foremost it’s the mentality. He’s going to walk in there and he’s not going to shy away from anybody on that defense. He don’t care who it is, he’s going to go to battle with them every single play, and he’s going to make the other side better as well. He’s going to bring value on special teams.

I think he’s going to be a great fit for the 49ers and that tight end room, we watch those guys a ton because they do a great job and I know he’s just going to excel through that coaching and being around a great player. Brayden was a great college football player and now he’s going to go be around one of the greatest tight ends of all time, and he’s going to absolutely soak up every single thing that Kittle has to offer him.

I couldn’t be more excited for him and there is no doubt in my mind that guy is going to play for eight or ten years as long as his body will allow him to, because he’s got that mindset as a dog. He’s smart and he’s going to bring so much to the team, in addition to what he does on the field, he’s a leader by example and every coach and every player in that locker room is going to love him.”

One thing that really stood out in this response was Coach Finley talking about the landing spot. Knowing he has walked in these shoes himself, I asked him how valuable is the landing spot for a player like Willis, and is it something that gets overlooked in the bigger picture:

“I think it’s the most overlooked thing for college guys going to the next level, just getting in the right situation. Just being around guys that are similar to yourself, guys that appreciate exactly what you bring to the table and finding ways to use what you do well. I think the 49ers do a great job with that and if I could have hand picked a spot for him it would have been the 49ers, no doubt about it. I know that’s why he was so fired up to be going there.”

During Coach Finley’s football career, he played on the same field as a first ballot hall of fame wide receiver and another running back who will almost assuredly be enshrined on the first ballot when he is eligible in 2027.

I asked Coach Finley about the greatest players he shared a field with, and one of the names he mentioned is sure to bring a smile to 49ers fans everywhere:

“I’d say Adrian Peterson is 1A and 1B is Calvin Johnson, two of the best football players I have ever seen in my life and I got to play on the field with both of them. And you’re going to think I’m kidding, but I always put Justin Smith up there because I had to block him, and I know exactly how good he was.”