Connor Wills

Idaho State linebacker Connor Wills (47) wraps up Utah’s Devonta’e Henry-Cole during their game Sept. 14 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

POCATELLO — There was an unfamiliar name high up on the defensive stats list for Idaho State last Saturday against Utah. Freshman linebacker Connor Wills, in his second collegiate game, filled in for the injured Kennon Smith and finished second on the team with eight tackles.

Wills is far from the typical freshman, though. Fresh off of his breakout game, the former Madison High School star sat down with the Idaho State Journal to discuss playing in Rice-Eccles Stadium, this week’s game at Northern Iowa, and how he ended up in Pocatello.

Idaho State Journal: Were you expecting to play that much against Utah? What was that experience like?

Connor Wills: I don’t know if I was necessarily expecting it, but I was ready for it. You always prepare like you’re ready to play. I knew that I was the No. 2 linebacker, and I knew if someone went down, I’d be ready. It was awesome. I haven’t played in a venue that big in my life. Against a really good team, I just tried to keep a level head. My teammates helped me, and it was amazing. A dream come true, really.

ISJ: What about just playing a team as talented as Utah?

CW: I think, going into it you have a little bit of jitters. But you get on the field, you realize it’s just another football team. It’s another football game. You watch football on TV growing up, and you always see the players and you always dream that it would be you, but it’s just another football game when you get in there, you know. You get your reads, you play downhill. It’s just another football game. I mean, a lot more people. It was awesome. Definitely something I’ve always dreamed of.

ISJ: Was there a particular play that you remember from that game?

CW: I think the second play I went in. I was ready to play. I blitzed, and I almost had a sack, but I slid off, but that was when I was really like, ‘Oh, I’m in. I’m good to play. These guys are just another player.’

ISJ: How’d you get to Idaho State?

CW: I played at Madison (High School, in Rexburg), and I played against a lot of guys on the team here. We used to be enemies, but now we’re good buds, a lot of guys from Highland and things like that. I served a mission for my church and I came back. I actually wasn’t going to play football again. I went to BYU and decided I couldn’t give it up. And so I went and played there, and I realized that I wanted to be closer to my family, and I came and talked to (ISU defensive coordinator Roger) Cooper, and I felt like this was the best fit for me. I love the guys, I love coach Cooper, and I wanted to play here.

I came in, and I enjoyed it. The guys here are really welcoming, and everyone was really good people, so it was just a great fit. I grew up coming and playing at Holt Arena. My last game that I played in high school was here — I lost to Mountain View. It was sweet getting to play here and getting another win the first week. It washed the bad taste out of my mouth.

ISJ: How long were you at BYU? Why did you decide to leave?

CW: I played spring ball at BYU. After my mission, I came back, I played spring ball there for the spring, just this last spring. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel like it was the best fit for me. I went in the transfer portal and then I came down here. (I’m still a) true freshman, I didn’t use any eligibility up there. I really enjoyed (playing at BYU). Nothing against the BYU players, but I enjoy this team a lot better. The camaraderie, and the people are really welcoming. The players, they’re good people. They play hard. They’re willing to help you at whatever you want, with whatever you’re willing to do, and I’ve really enjoyed it. The people ahead of me, they were willing to show me what to do, even though I play the same position as them. They were willing to help me, just to help the team. They’re not out for themselves, and I felt that was a little different than spring ball.

ISJ: What’s the biggest thing you’re working on this fall?

CW: I’d say, after taking three, almost four years off from football — the last time I played was in 2015 — I’d say just a lot of the footwork and the skills that you gain after repetition, it just takes a little bit to get it back. The hand strikes, the footwork, the reads that you have to make, it just takes repetition, and I’d say that’s the No. 1 thing I’m working on. (That, and) just being where I need to be when I need to be there. Fulfilling my assignment and doing my 1/11th of the defense. I think that’s something coach Cooper has helped me a lot with. It’s a team defense, and everyone, if they do their assignment, we’ll stop them.

ISJ: What have you thought of the defense through two games?

CW: I think we’re a really good defense. In the first game (against Western Colorado), we held them, and the only time they scored were field goals. And then when we were down at Utah, we played really stout. A lot of people thought we were going to get pushed around, and we played really stout. We had a couple big plays that broke that really hurt us that they scored on. I can think of three in particular, but other than that, we held our ground and we stopped them. Specifically, the fourth down in the red zone, on the 1, they tried to quarterback sneak and we held them. And then the first drive, we held them to a field goal, and that’s the No. 9 team in the nation. I think our defense this year, based off those two games, we’re great.

ISJ: What are you looking forward to this week against Northern Iowa?

CW: Northern Iowa, they’re a good team. I think they’re ranked eighth or ninth (Editor’s note: UNI is ninth in the most recent STATS FCS media poll). They’re a good team, but we’re not scared. We’re going in there, and we’re ready to play. We’re ready to take it to them. I think the No. 1 thing that we’re working on is just focusing on their quarterback (Will McElvain). He’s very mobile, we’re trying to contain him, and we’re trying to do our best to do our assignment, right? There’s nothing too much we’re changing, we’re just trying to play football. I think it’ll be a really good game, I’m excited.

ISJ: Have you ever traveled as far for a football game as you will this week?

CW: I’ve never done this for football. We’re going to board a plane and fly and go into their house, a hostile environment, and go play a really good team. That’s what football’s all about. You both strap up your helmets. It doesn’t matter where you are or who you are, everyone has a chance, and we’re going to go in there and fight. I feel really good about our chances. They’re a really good team, but I’m ready to take it to them. I think (the whole team is), not just me.

ISJ: Where did you serve your mission?

CW: I served in Hawaii. Yeah, it was amazing. The people there are the most loving people you can imagine. I served from 2016 to 2018. I left about four months after high school. I graduated in the beginning of 2016 and left in August of 2016. I got home right before fall camp at BYU, so I didn’t play that fall. And then I played in the spring.

ISJ: Roger Cooper has talked about this maybe being his deepest group of linebackers ever at Idaho State. What’s it like being part of the group?

CW: We sit in that room, in the linebacker room, and watch film, and every single one of us can play. The veterans are great players. Watching them and watching their reps, seeing how they’re able to play and their reads, it helps all of us. They’re the leaders in the linebacker room, and they know what they’re doing. And us, coming in as younger kids, they show us the ropes. In the Utah game, Kody (Graves) would turn to me and be like, ‘Make sure you watch for this,’ or, ‘Alert this.’ They are just there to help us. They’ve been in the system for a long time, and they’re great. But at the depth spots, we have really good players as well. Even being at BYU, I feel like is probably one of the best linebacker corps I’ve been a part of, and that’s saying something. I’ve played with some really good players, but these guys are amazing.

ISJ: Are you excited to play BYU later in the season?

CW: Yeah, I’m ready to take it to them. They don’t mean much to me anymore. I transferred, and I’m a true Bengal now. The blue has washed out of me. I’m excited to go into their environment and take it to them, but other than that, I haven’t really thought about BYU too much.