ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The 2011 season was a milestone for wide receiver Matthew Willis.
After three years on and off of practice squads and a stint on injured reserve in 2010, Willis played in all 16 games for the first time in his career.
Not to mention his team made the postseason and he played in both playoff games, hauling in an 18-yard reception against New England in the Divisional Round.
"That was big for me," Willis said. "It was huge. Finishing a season, just the knowledge you get, how you get comfortable. Last year was a whirlwind -- one of those seasons you'll never forget. It was a lot of fun. I had a good time. I'd love to follow it up again with a bigger season."
The fifth-year receiver, who was originally recruited by UCLA as a hurdler, is out to make sure that last year was not an anomaly, but rather a sign of things to come.
In 2007, Willis was signed by the Baltimore Ravens as a college free agent. Splitting time between the practice squad and the active roster, he earned playing time in five games as a rookie, hauling in an 11-yard reception and notching a special teams stop.
He spent the following season out of football before signing to the Broncos' practice squad for the final game of the year. In 2009, he made the practice squad again -- until the final game, when he cracked the starting lineup.
He followed that up with an exceptional 2010 preseason, which included a 122-yard, one-touchdown performance in the finale. But a foot injury ended his season prematurely -- he was placed on injured reserve after six games in which he caught one pass.
But it all finally came together last season. In 16 regular-season games played, he caught 18 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown.
"Matt Willis is a guy that nobody talks about a lot, but Matt is a leader in that receiver room as well," Wide Receivers Coach Tyke Tolbert said. "When he says stuff, people listen. He leads by example. He's always back there helping the young guys. He's one of the smartest guys that I've ever been around, as far as knowing all the positions. So I'm very pleased with him from a leadership standpoint."
Willis agreed that he sometimes feels like a veteran in the meeting room, but he admitted that at times he still feels like a young guy.
His place right in between the veterans and younger players suits him just fine.
"I think it's a great group," Willis said. "We've got Stoke (Brandon Stokley) as our veteran guy, we've got DT (Demaryius Thomas) and (Eric) Decker, who have made plays, Bubba (Andre Caldwell) made plays in Cincinnati, Jason (Hill) has made plays, then we've got a group of younger guys that are hungry and ready to compete. You've got a good staircase of talented players. Everyone's hungry and ready to make a play and we all work well together. So it's been a lot of fun."
A restricted free agent entering the offseason, Willis said he knew he wanted to be back in Denver, and was elated when that became a reality.
Now he's working on overcoming a "learning curve" while digesting a new offensive system, and understands that what he did last season doesn't necessarily mean much entering 2012.
"Every year you start over," he said. "You take it year-by-year. My goal is to come in again and prove myself, make plays and just build off of that."
He was happy with how OTAs and minicamp went for him, and he hopes to keep getting "bigger, faster, stronger" by the time training camp rolls around.
He understands the opportunity in front of him with a quarterback the caliber of Peyton Manning under center. He's already learned plenty from Manning, watching his work ethic and asking him questions along the way.
It's not lost on Willis that in his career, Manning has helped turn previously unknown players into household names, whether it was new Bronco Jacob Tamme, Pierre Garcon, "Austin Collie," Willis chimed in.
"Based on Peyton's history, the fact that he's going through his reads and throwing to open guys, it doesn't matter what quote-unquote 'number' receiver you are, you're going to get your touches," Tolbert said. "Peyton is just that good, to the point where he's not going to try to force-feed any particular guy. He's going to go through his reads and hit the open guy. That's what he's been able to do and that's why he's been so successful."
Willis said he's putting in the work now to make sure he'll be in position to benefit.
"It's definitely a good situation to be in," he said. "We're going to pass. With a guy like that who can put a ball anywhere, it's up to us to make the plays. I just hope to earn a spot and be out there to make those plays."