Israel Woolfork, who spent the last eight years coaching at Miami (Ohio), has been selected as the Browns' next recipient of the Bill Willis Coaching Fellowship, given to a rising minority coach with a focus on the offensive side of the ball.
Woolfork, who was also a wide receiver at Grand Valley State from 2008-12 and is from Livonia, Michigan, will primarily work in the quarterbacks room with Browns QBs coach Drew Petzing and help navigate a position that features three new players in Deshaun Watson, Jacoby Brissett and Joshua Dobbs.
He previously worked with Browns coaches during the 2021 offseason as part of the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, a separate opportunity each NFL team offers to minority coaches during offseason programs.
"This was an opportunity to come back and work for a great organization, and I wanted to jump on that opportunity," Woolfork said. "This is my dream job — to be in the NFL. This has always been a dream of mine, and to finally have that opportunity now is really awesome."
Woolfork, 31, is the second coach to receive the fellowship since the Browns created the position in 2020 to provide opportunities and experience to minority coaches, who have historically faced barriers in their pursuit of entry-level positions and promotions. The fellowship was named after Willis, who along with teammate Marion Motley, overcame many obstacles to become two of the first African-American professional football players in the modern era. Willis played with the Browns from 1946-53 and was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
"We created the Bill Willis Fellowship to help address an issue in our league that we all need to do our part to impact," Head Coach Kevin Stefanski said. "(Executive Vice President of Football Ops and GM) Andrew (Berry) and I have tried to be very intentional about adding diverse perspectives to both the coaching and personnel side of our organization. Historically, there has not been enough diversity on the offensive side of the ball and specifically in the quarterback room. Israel is a young coach that we got to know last year for a short period of time as a Bill Walsh Fellow. He worked with us virtually in the Spring and then spent a few days with us at training camp and quickly impressed. He's really an outstanding young coach that did a really good job in his role at Miami. He wants to come in here and learn but he also has a lot of experience that he can bring to the QB room. He's jumped right in with that group and is making an impact already. We're excited about having him in our program and having him work with Drew and (Offensive Coordinator) Alex (Van Pelt) with our quarterbacks."
Ashton Grant was the first fellow to be selected as a Bill Willis fellow and was named the Browns' offensive quality control coach in February after two seasons with the team.
Woolfork joins the Browns after serving as Miami's wide receivers coach since 2018. He was also the running backs coach from 2015-17 and started coaching in the program as a graduate assistant in 2013-14.
In Cleveland, Woolfork will help Petzing and other Browns coaches execute day-to-day activities throughout the year, from building copies of the playbook for players, preparing and occasionally leading meetings and conducting practice drills, among other tasks. He'll also work closely with Watson, a two-time Pro Bowler whom the Browns acquired in March, in his first season in Cleveland.
"We've got three veteran quarterbacks, and I get to be a fly on the wall in that room and soak up as much information as possible," he said. "For me, as a young coach, to be given this opportunity is probably one of the best things that can happen to me and help me develop."
Woolfork's passion for coaching was built while he was still playing at Grand Valley State. The itch to become a coach started his sophomore year, when he devoted countless hours toward studying the playbook and learning nearly every play assignment for every offensive position after he was beat out for a starting receiver job.
The work paid off — Woolfork continued to find playing time primarily as an outside and slot wide receiver roles, as well as tight end, but he also became a tutor of sorts for his teammates. He showed younger players where to line up and was able to give directions on every play, an experience that made him realize how much he enjoyed helping the team in ways beyond catching the football.
"I wanted to make sure I was the hardest-working person and that I knew (the playbook) more than anything," Woolfork said. "I just fell in love with it. It didn't feel like work to me."
Woolfork's transition from coaching college football to the NFL should be much easier thanks to his work with the Bill Walsh Fellowship. He mainly worked with the tight ends and partnered with Petzing, who was the tight ends coach last season before he moved to QB coach for 2022.
Woolfork and Petzing have kept in touch since the fellowship ended. Now, they're back in the building together, ensuring Woolfork learns what he needs to succeed after the fellowship and finding ways to make the Browns' 2022 season a success at the QB position.
"I love the way he coaches, from the meeting rooms out to the field," Woolfork said. "I think he does a really good job of making things easy to learn. He's a great teacher and he knows a lot of football.
"I'm here to serve. I'm here to be the best assistant I can be."