Reeling in a real big fish
May 11, 2007 at 11:38 AM
The San Francisco 49ers entered the 2007 NFL Draft with a variety of high expectations and a philosophy to build a championship caliber football team that will last for years to come. Mike Nolan and Vice President of Personnel Scot McCloughan did just that with amazing results in that we made calculated and surgical maneuvers that further enhanced the architecture of this football team.
"With the 11th pick in the 2007 NFL draft the San Francisco 49ers select Patrick Willis, Inside Linebacker from the University of Mississippi."
This was the most widely anticipated moment for thousands of San Francisco 49er faithful around the far reaches of the globe. The selection was a shocker to many, including mouth-watering NFL teams in dire need of Patrick's services due to a lack of playmaking ability and depth in their linebacker corps. The 49ers were seemingly stacked at this position in many ways because of the veterans already on the team in this position and acquisitions made in free agency prior to the draft.
Regardless of this, Mike Nolan had Patrick Willis on the board because of many influential factors, the largest probably being the fact that Nolan coached him for over a week at this year's Senior Bowl and he burnt a lasting impression in Nolan's mind. Willis also registered well with Assistant head coach/linebacker coach Mike Singletary, making him a very willing advocate for his services. Singletary hoped Willis would help transform the 49er defense from a 4-3 stance alignment to a 3-4 model of defense, as we have long anticipated from Mike Nolan.
This is an athlete cut from the best of what society has to offer. He is a great campaigner for his home community and a role model to his teammates on and off the field. He is, in a sense, the model team player that Mike Nolan craves to add to the team.
Patrick Willis made early impressions upon the coaching staff back at the Senior Bowl...so much so that they remained a constant like a fingerprint engraved upon the edges of their brainwaves. Last year, the 49ers coached an all-star squad at the Senior Bowl, and their evaluations played a role in the selections of such players as linebackers Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson, and running back Michael Robinson. This year Mike Nolan again had the privilege of coaching the all-star squad at the Senior Bowl. It was here that Willis caught the intensive eye of Hall of Fame linebacker from the Chicago Bears, Mike Singletary. Singletary came away marveling about Patrick's receptiveness to coaching and his instincts, aggressiveness, and attitude to become an exceptional player. Nolan felt like he was standing inside a candy store after his evaluations on Willis, knowing this was the prototypical player he desired to secure the 3-4 defensive alignments he has set as a goal for this defense.
"He's got an ability to cover a lot of ground, but we didn't just draft an athlete. We drafted a football player," Nolan said of Willis.
"He certainly has a lot of tools, a lot of speed, good size to go with that speed, and he finds the football," Singletary said. "And he was just one of those guys that no matter how hard we worked, he always found a way to smile. He asked a lot of questions, and I really liked that about him."
To find a difference maker on our defense, Mike Nolan knew he had to go no further then to draft Patrick Willis who can be a dedicated and willing playmaker for a team that gave up the league's most points last season. Willis, an inside linebacker, is a 6-foot-1, 240-pound beast. He was an extremely productive college player who registered excellent leadership qualities. Most draft experts had Willis pegged as being the best inside linebacker prospect within the last several years.
Nolan and his staff have long been expected to switch from a 4-3 defensive alignment over to a 3-4 defensive alignment. This defense is considered by many to be more confusing to an opponent's offense and sets the stage for instant gratification in terms of quarterback pressure and run stopping ability. Even though Willis played mostly middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme at the University of Mississippi, his combination of size and speed makes him a leading candidate for the so called "Mike" inside linebacker spot in the 3-4 defense. Although unfamiliar with its concepts, Patrick Willis has proven to be the ideal pupil both on and off the field and will push himself to learn whatever is necessary to make the appropriate adjustments. His ability to study, learn and decipher information is a character strength he has carried with him all of his life.
Willis has pledged to come in and make a resounding difference on this football team. His overall objective is to contribute to this defense and help make it a playoff contender as early as this season. He is expected to push for a starting position right from the starting gate once training camp commences, and has his own personal benchmarks he desires to attain within the next few months.
"I expect him to make an impact right away. In the third down area I would expect him to be a starter right away. But as far as overall, in terms of second down, he will compete with the other guys. But he will certainly have an impact on our team right away," Nolan said.
Back in Bruceton High School, Patrick Willis earned Class "A" Mr. Football honors, and was a two-time All-State choice. He was also chosen Most Valuable Player and West Tennessee Player of the Year as a senior. When you look at his previous season in high school, Willis was named all state, All-West Tennessee and Regional Defensive Player of the Year.
In his senior season alone, Willis had 194 carries for 2,167 yards (11.2 avg.) and 30 touchdowns. Defensively, he was credited with 163 tackles, including 36 for losses, while racking up 12 sacks and four pass interceptions, returning one for a score.
Patrick Willis also earned four letters in basketball and three in baseball. He averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds as a senior, 24 points and 11 rebounds as a junior, and 18 points and eight rebounds as a sophomore.
Taking a look at his career with the University of Mississippi...it is quite extensive and very impressive. He enrolled in 2003, and saw action in 13 games as a true freshman. He finished with 20 tackles (16 solos) and a stop behind the line of scrimmage. The great middle linebacker would pose as a reserve in 2004 and appear in 10 games, but despite not starting any games he ranked third on the team with 70 tackles (54 solos) and led Ole Mississippi with five sacks and 11 stops for losses.
This performance earned him All-Southeastern Conference honorable mention. He took over command at middle linebacker in 2005. He did suffer a broken middle finger on his right hand against Vanderbilt. He played in his final eight games wearing a cast and in the team's last two games with a broken bone in his right foot.
Despite all the mishaps and personal injuries he continued to grind away and play for his teammates and was determined to still be a factor both on and off the field. Even with all this going on, he ranked sixth in the nation and led the SEC with 128 tackles (90 solos). He posted three sacks, 9.5 stops for losses and two pressures. He went on to cause two fumbles, recovered another, intercepted a pass and deflected four others, walking away with first-team All-America and All-SEC honors.
In 2006 Patrick Willis registered 137 tackles (87 solos) and three sacks. He won the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year Award, won the Butkus Award as the nations top linebacker and was the defensive MVP of the Senior Bowl.
His star potential again was further realized when he ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine to elevate himself as the top linebacker in this draft, then he ran an eye-popping 4.37 at his on-campus workout to make him a potential top 10 pick in this year's draft. Being versatile and mobile as can be, Patrick is able to play both in the middle and on the outside, and had 355 tackles as a three-year starter.
Willis is also a person that has overcome extremely hard times. A mother who abandoned him and his three siblings when he was four years old ravaged his personal life. It is amazing that at six years old he was cooking for his two brothers, Orey and Detris, and his sister Ernicka. Ernicka later filed a complaint that their dad abused her, and the four kids were split up and sent to foster care. On top of all that, in the summer of 2005, Detris, then 17, drowned in a swimming accident. Patrick Willis dedicated his 2006 season to his lost brother.
"My real life experience has taught me how to compete through adversity, no matter what the situation was," Willis said. "No matter what happens, if someone knocks you down, you have to find a way to get up and get the job done."
Through all the trauma of what life threw at him, Patrick Willis has been a fighter and a survivor of some pretty adverse personal situations. He has used that fury and pain out on the playing field but still carries himself as a true professional and fellow teammate.
You will see Patrick Willis in direct competition with seasoned veterans such as Derek Smith, Jeff Ulbrich and Brandon Moore. Mike Nolan has not pulled any punches other than to indicate that Willis will push those that decide to sit back and relax and the consequences will be a loss of their starting position.
"He will be in the inside linebacker position on first and second down on the weak-side, which is where Derek Smith more than likely will be this year along with linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, so he will compete with those guys on the regular downs, he'll step right in front of the guys that were there. Linebacker Hannibal Navies was there last year, so he'll step right in front of him on that down," Nolan said.
Many of us believed that Mike Nolan would look at a defensive end or defensive tackle kind of athlete. But for all intents and purposes Patrick Willis was the best player on the board and taking him then was the smartest pick in the entire draft. Patrick Willis will resemble All-Pro veteran Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens and others that have come up over the years. I can expect nothing but positives with Mike Singletary leading the teachings and schemes that will be employed by this new defense. No longer will there be points scored at will against this defense. We will hold our own once and for all. And we will continue to grow stronger each and every game from a multitude of developing talent that should catapult us into contention sooner rather than later.
On a personal note I want to apologize for not writing directly after the draft due to my beloved grandmother that is in the final days of her life at 86-years old. She has been taken off chemotherapy and the end is in sight and I have had to be with her and will continue till the very end.
Doris Heald my grandmother has been an inspiration in my life I have no words to describe. She has a faith that just shakes me to my foundation as I watch at how incredible her spirit is despite all the pain that surrounds her on a constant basis.
I will continue to write and bring you more insight on the draft picks we have acquired and I will be thankful for what has transpired with the 49ers over these last few years in a bid to re-write our history and re-establish a dynasty we still know of from yesterday. God Bless all of you.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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