COLERAIN TOWNSHIP, Ohio — Colerain senior cornerback Ken Willis woke up early Wednesday morning ready to become a Cincinnati Bearcat.
As he walked into Colerain High School preparing to sign his National Letter of Intent, he was able to connect with UC head coach Luke Fickell and UC cornerbacks coach Perry Eliano on FaceTime.
A short time later, Willis joined Colerain senior running back MJ Flowers (Eastern Illinois Univesity) for a signing day ceremony at 7:30 a.m. in the Colerain gymnasium.
From the UC polo shirt to the hat to the placard on the table, Willis had Bearcats – and his future – on his mind.
"I'm excited to get down there," Willis told WCPO. "I made my decision back in June, so to watch everything progress and see UC go to where they are now, I'm excited to get down there and work."
Willis was among the thousands of jubilant University of Cincinnati fans who celebrated on the Nippert Stadium field the night of Dec. 4.
The scene after the American Athletic Conference title – which led to the College Football Playoff berth – became an indelible image of this college football season.
"UC is getting a lot of recognition," Willis said Wednesday morning. "All the Power Five teams, they're always in the playoffs and stuff, so it's good to see a Group of Five team get in there finally."
UC's success has had a profound impact on Willis, who was the only Greater Cincinnati high school football player scheduled to sign his National Letter of Intent with UC on Wednesday.
"It's crazy," Willis said. "From what coach (Luke) Fickell came in to do, and changed the program around, it's just exciting to see. Ready to get up there and make an impact."
Willis smiled late last week recalling a celebration for the ages at Nippert the first weekend of December.
"It was electric down there," said Willis, who has been verbally committed to UC since Father's Day.
"I was right with them. I was down there, too. It was a lot of people. You couldn't move."
This memorable season renewed the enthusiasm Willis has for the Bearcats (13-0), who became the first non-Power 5 team to be selected for the College Football Playoff.
UC plays Alabama (12-1) Dec. 31 in a national semifinal at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Willis said he will be watching the game from home, but he is not far from the Bearcats.
He is scheduled to move onto the UC campus Jan. 9. He can't wait to join a roster that has multiple other Colerain graduates this month.
"The crazy thing about it was I committed before all the rankings and stuff," Willis said. "I knew where I wanted to go, so it's fun to see them progress through the season, have all this talk about them. But I made my decision before all that was talked about, so I'm proud of that."
Ken Willis, Ken's father, said the Bearcats' success this season has put an exclamation point on his son's verbal commitment this past June, a decision which he described as the "best Father's Day gift I ever had."
Eliano made an in-home visit with Willis Dec. 4 and described the irony with recruiting this year.
"He was talking about some of the kids that they went after that kind of went in another direction," the elder Ken Willis said.
"Some of them now are like, 'Hey can I transfer?'" And that makes us feel even better, because we didn't know where they were going to be on Father's Day. We were basing our decision off of how they welcomed us just with open arms. Filling us in about the college and the program. It was just a real comfortable feeling."
Colerain coach Shawn Cutright said the Willis family had a natural connection with the Bearcats and has no doubt the cornerback will succeed at UC just like multiple other Colerain graduates.
"I see him going down there and contributing in the secondary following behind (senior safety) Ja'von (Hicks) that's been doing a great job down there for them," Cutright said.
"He's a good cover guy. Physical for a DB. Kenny is a physical guy. He loves contact. Sort of an old school DB."
Willis understands the transition ahead of him as he enrolls early at UC, but he feels very prepared.
"When I get up to UC, just keep my head down and grind," Willis said. "I don't want any distractions while I'm trying to work for my spot or anything, so I just got to keep my head down and grind – get a starting spot up there."
Those who know Willis at Colerain said he is ready for the next step of his education and athletics career.
Colerain athletic director Matt Stoinoff described Willis as "an amazing student-athlete."
Willis has taken a lot of Advanced Placement and honors classes and his intelligence shows in game preparation with film study, according to Cutright.
Cutright said Willis competes on every down, and his passion for the game influenced both sides of the ball for Colerain this season.
"I couldn't be more happy that he is going down to UC," Cutright said. "That's a pretty short drive down there to Clifton to watch him play the next few years. I look forward to it."