Willis already paying dividends

May 17, 2007 at 8:51 AM

Back in January in Mobile, Alabama as the Senior Bowl was underway San Francisco 49ers linebackers coach Mike Singletary grew increasingly agitated at one of the South-squad's linebackers who failed to stop the North-squad's tight ends. The 49er coaching staff under Mike Nolan was in charge of the South squad on this gloomy and rainy day, where they were analyzing potential candidates prior to the 2007 NFL draft.

Singletary, upset with the production of his linebackers called over Mississippi linebacker Patrick Willis and point blank asked him to do something out of the normal. He asked him if he could play outside linebacker, after validating himself to the staff as the starting middle linebacker in practices leading up to this game.

He performed at a high level after the move and impressed Mike Singletary so much that he became a vocal lobbyist for the top-rated linebacker before going into the draft. After some meetings and discussions among the coaches and the 49er scouting department the consensus was pretty clear-cut in what the 49ers wanted with their first round draft pick weighing in at No.#11 overall.

What could be more exact at finally implementing the 3-4 defensive alignment and schemes that were Mike Nolan's badge of recognition back when he was defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. Mike Nolan has been insistent on adopting this defensive alignment and implementing its handiwork in getting the San Francisco 49er defense back on an even keel again.

Lack of depth and talent combined with versatility and injuries have hampered his efforts so far two years running to fully implement this defensive science on the field the way he has desired it to be up and until now. Patrick Willis allows for those once possibilities to become utter realities now.

Patrick Willis will now be the instant 49er linebacker that will come on in on passing downs, where the team will go with five and sometimes six defensive backs. More importantly he'll be in direct competition for the starter's job at weak inside linebacker in what will be a 3-4 defense that demands a quick, psycho-tackling machine.

Veteran middle linebacker Derek Smith is standing in his way though after coming off a career-low season in which he was hampered by an eye condition that he had to have surgery on to repair a damaged eye muscle. Having already reported to 49er mini-camp he is embroiled in learning this new defensive philosophy as we speak.

The Senior Bowl was where Patrick Willis finally sealed the deal to become a San Francisco 49er hands down. It was there under the watchful eyes of both Nolan and Singletary that he made the early impressions that carried over for the next several weeks prior to the NFL draft.

"He was just one of those guys that no matter ho0w hard we worked, he always found a way to smile," Singletary said. "He asked a lot of questions, and I really liked that about him. We told him to do something one way, a particular technique, or whatever that was, you saw him the next time around really trying to work on that."

Patrick Willis is a bit different from other linebackers that qualified for this draft. He came from hard times and had to endure incredible hardships as a small child having to take care of his siblings in a family that fell apart and was ridiculed with molestation allegations. These situations eventually led to Willis into a foster home.

"It (his background) may make a young man grow up quicker," Singletary said. "When you begin to understand that bills have to be paid, you begin to understand that life is more about, having fun."

On top of dealing with all this he had to endure the swimming accident that his brother died from at a very early age in which he dedicated his last season in college to. He has tried to tunnel that anguish and frustration into something beneficial to him and always seems to be the positive role model others seem to be talking about.

He has had to be physically tough as well as he has dealt with a number of personal injuries that have strengthened his character. He has had to overcome a broken finger, sprained knee, shoulder injury and a foot malady that required off-season surgery. Durability doesn't really play into anything though considering that Willis played through them no matter what the circumstances were.

Patrick Willis was named the SEC's defensive player of the year after leading the league in tackles for two straight seasons, and Nolan honestly believes that he is the key that will become the ball-hawking weak-side linebacker that is critical to the 49er 3-4 defensive alignments. He will take on 11-year veteran Derek Smith for the coveted starting position right in training camp this year and Willis has indicated he'll win that position.

What some of you don't know either is that Patrick Willis has won the Lambert Trophy, which is another honor representative of the nation's top linebacker, and has attained the Conerly Trophy, which is given to Mississippi's best football player. On top of all that he was voted Senior Bowl defensive MVP and continues to be a motivating force wherever you see him on and off the field.

In the San Francisco 49ers mini-camps that have been underway already Willis admits he is behind the others in comprehending the schemes of the 3-4 defense but is fearless in his forecast of predicting he'll be at 100% by way of training camp.

" I want to be where the veterans are, I want to have it all down, I want to get it all right now," Willis said one Saturday. "But you've got to crawl before you can walk. That's kind of where I'm at right now."

This is an athlete and an all-around football player folks. This is a human being that is completely focused on what he has to do to get ahead in life. The NFL is his new playground and he'll do everything he can to turn up the heat on 11-year veteran Derek Smith.

He is gifted with having some of the fastest and quickest footwork ever by a linebacker that scouts have seen. Willis covered 40 yards in 4.49 seconds at the NFL Combine back in February, one of the fastest times turned in by a linebacker. He continued that just a month earlier, after impressing the 49er coaching staff throughout the week at the Senior Bowl practices with his elite speed and find-the-football agility.

Willis, who has played primarily in a 4-3 system in Mississippi, is now working at the inside linebacker's spot in mini-camps with veterans Brandon Moore, Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich. So far, he has picked up invaluable information from the veterans, and their impressions of Willis are impressive ones.

"When we're out there, they try to help me as much as they can and say, 'Calm down.' I have to," Willis said. "They're helping me all they can. They've been great. When they tell me they're learning stuff, too, I don't feel as bad."

11-year veteran Derek Smith has been the ideal inside linebacker that the 49ers can be proud of. Smith recorded more than 120 tackles each of his first nine seasons in the NFL, but he had just 93 tackles last season. Derek was bothered by an eye condition that ultimately affected his ability to make sound tackles last season.

He was unable to move his eye up and to the left. The condition was diagnosed as a muscle strain. He underwent surgery Feb 26th, 2007 and is now taking part in 49er mini-camps. Derek claims his eyesight is fine, but went on to add, "In my left, I'll always have permanent damage up there." Derek later declined to elaborate.

When you look back on Derek Smith he just signed a contract extension last year for three years, $14 million dollar contract. This was a friendly deal generated because of his sound and consistent production out on the field. He made known beyond that three-year deal that chances were slim he would play beyond that point.

Therefore, he wasn't at all surprised to see the 49ers pick a linebacker in the first round of this draft, a player in Patrick Willis that is centered on taking Derek's job as the starter away from him eventually. He'll also make those around him better as well in Manny Lawson, Brandon Moore and Jeff Ulbrich.

"I'm sure he's a great athlete and a great football player, if they took him that high," Smith said. "That's the way the NFL works. I think he'll make our team better. You always have to be thinking ahead."

The 6-1, 240-pound Patrick Willis from the University of Mississippi has been compared to Ed Hartwell of the Atlanta Falcons. Here is the tale of the tape on this top-rated linebacker soon to be the dividend maker for the San Francisco 49ers.

Read & React: Very Instinctive. Reads the action quickly and is seemingly always in the right place at the right time. Rarely fooled by misdirection or trick plays. Displays legitimate sideline-to-sideline speed in part because of his ability to read the action. Run defense: A physical presence in the middle. Reliable open-field tackler who can bounce off blocks and beat the ball to the sidelines. Shows good anticipation and awareness.

Pass defense: Cognizant in coverage, though this isn't his strong suit. Shows good overall athleticism, agility and quickness, but can be beaten in both man and zone coverage. A try-hard player who has worked to improve in this area, but he looks like a good two-down middle linebacker who will struggle in third-down passing situations in the NFL.

It seems odd to me that this is where the 49ers will center him the most and this being a clear weakness. But maybe this is best so he can tweak this particular area in his resume and make it a distinct strength through training camp and pre-season.

Tackling: Gets through the trash, can beat a one-on-one block in the hole and races to cut off the outside run. Wraps and buries when tackling in the hole, and makes open-field tackles.

Pass rush/Blitz: Understands blocking schemes and has the short-area burst to be effective as a blitzer, but was not used much in that role while with the Rebels.

Intangibles: A hard worker and a team leader. Playing with his right hand in a club cast as a junior, Willis showed the determination, strength and technique to take on and disengage from blockers. Durability is a concern for some. Willis had a broken hand and foot in his time at Mississippi, but he also impressed some with his willingness to play hurt.

Overall: Patrick Willis stands way out among the linebacker prospects from this draft, and the glowing reviews go well beyond his stellar and consistent college production. He has the athleticism and power to be an instant hit in the NFL, and needs only to answer questions about his durability, and ability to be effective in coverage.

With three new linebackers in mini-camps in rookies Jay Moore, Patrick Willis and veteran Tully Banta-Cain the 49ers have the components to ensure that the 3-4 will be an effective piece of work this coming season. This is something Mike Nolan has been drooling over for sometime now.

The perfect piece to the chess set seems to be Patrick Willis. I can't tell you enough at how excited I am that he was our very first round pick in this draft because I feel our defense will be a force to be reckoned with inside our division and out as well.

"All this to me has been wonderful," said Willis. "There's times, like when I just picked up that jersey when I walked in and to it's like, this is my new home now, but when they put that jersey in my hand, I saw 52 and I'm holding a San Francisco jersey with Willis on the back and I said, man, I truly am blessed at this moment to be here holding this jersey, and like I said, I want to make this organization proud."

Well I have news for everyone. I believe he'll make us all proud and it is already materializing out on the field in mini-camps. 49er fans from near and far have something to hold on to now with a 3-4 defense that confuses and frustrates the enemy and will be around for a long time to come.
The opinions 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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