Whatcha Talking ‘Bout Willis
With the 11th pick in the 1st round of the 2007 NFL Draft, the 49ers select Mississippi LB Patrick Willis:
One of the few bright spots during the Rebels’ rebuilding process, Willis established himself as the best middle linebacker in college football the last two years. He played most of the 2005 season with a broken right hand, but still ranked sixth in the nation in tackles per game (10.9). He surpassed those totals in 2006, again ranking sixth nationally with an average of 11.42 tackles per game.
One of the most respected players in the country, Willis is also one of the most liked personalities away from the game. A leader both on the field and off, he is heavily involved in community service. Despite all of the accolades he has received the last two seasons, he quietly goes about his job.
How far he has come on and off the field is because of his tireless work ethic. Willis came from a split family environment, as his mother left home more than 15 years ago. At age six, Patrick was cooking breakfast for his younger sister and brothers. At 10, he was picking cotton around his home. The proceeds went to his father, Ernest, to pay the utilities. Even now, Patrick says it wasn’t that bad.
Willis would play his final season at Mississippi with a heavy heart after the death of his brother, Detris. Detris, 17, had been swimming with friends in gravel pits near the family’s hometown of Bruceton. The 218-pound teenage linebacker cramped up. “Once he cramped up, it just spread,” Patrick said. “He was the biggest one out there. No one could pull him out.” Patrick would dedicate the rest of his career to the memory of his brother.
At Bruceton High School, Willis earned Class “A” Mr. Football honors and was a two-time all-state choice. He was also chosen Regional Most Valuable Player and West Tennessee Player of the Year as a senior. The previous season, Willis was named all-state, All-West Tennessee and Regional Defensive Player of the Year. As a sophomore, he was a first-team all-region and honorable mention all-state pick, adding all-region honors as a freshman.
During his senior season, 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. He helped lead Central High to the 2001 and 2002 Regional Championship and State Quarterfinals. Central was also a 1999 state semifinalist.
For his career, Willis carried the ball 276 times for 2,486 yards (9.0 avg.) and 39 scores. He had 51 receptions for 946 yards (18.5 avg.) and 17 touchdowns. On defense, he made 494 career tackles, including 275 solo hits, as well as 23 sacks, 46 stops for losses and 13 interceptions, with six returned for touchdowns. He scored 392 career points (62 TDs, one extra point, three two-point conversion, one field goal, two safeties) and compiled 3,944 all-purpose yards.
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 during his basketball career. He picked up all-district, all-region, District Most Valuable Player, All-West Tennessee, and honorable mention all-state honors in basketball. In baseball, he garnered all-district honors. He was also named Mr. Central High School.
Willis enrolled at Mississippi in 2003, seeing action in 13 games as a true freshman. He finished the season with 20 tackles (16 solos) and a stop behind the line of scrimmage. The middle linebacker would appear in 10 games as a reserve in 2004, but despite not starting any contests, he ranked third on the team with 70 tackles (54 solos) and led Ole Miss with five sacks and 11 stops for losses. He had four quarterback pressures and caused and recovered a fumble. That performance earned him All-Southeastern Conference honorable mention.
Willis took over middle linebacker chores in 2005. He suffered a broken middle finger on his right hand against Vanderbilt, playing in his final eight games wearing a cast and in the team’s last two contests with a broken bone in his right foot. Still, 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 also caused two fumbles, recovered another, intercepted a pass and deflected four others, walking home with first-team All-America and All-SEC honors.
Willis was a consensus All-America and unanimous All-SEC first-team pick as a senior in 2006. He received the Conerly Trophy as Mississippi’s best college football player and was the recipient of the Butkus Award and Lambert Trophy winner as the nation’s top linebacker. He was also selected SEC Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press and the league’s coaches and was a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award.
During his final season, Willis collected a career-high 137 tackles (87 solos) with three sacks and 11.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage. He caused two fumbles, recovered another and batted down seven passes.
In 45 games at Mississippi, Willis started 22 times. He finished his career with 355 tackles (247 solos), 11 sacks for minus-92 yards, 33 stops for losses totaling 154 yards and eight pressures. He caused five fumbles and recovered three others, returning one for a 9-yard gain. He also had one interception and 12 pass deflections.
Positives: Has a muscular upper-body frame with good shoulder and chest definition and the potential to add at least another 10 pounds of bulk without having it affect his overall quickness … Has a lean waist, good bubble, muscular legs with good bulk … Tough athlete who played all of 2005 with a cast to protect a broken right hand and performed in the final two 2005 games with a broken bone in his foot … Moves very well operating in space and has the loose hips to change direction fluidly … Shows good acceleration, balance and body control working his way down the line … Aggressive taking on multiple blockers, using his leg drive and power to stack single blocks at the line of scrimmage … Instinctive and quick reactor who won’t get fooled by play-action and is quick to recognize blocking schemes … Stays square when facing-up to offensive guards, getting enough leverage with his strength and shedding quickly thanks to active hand swipes … Hard worker in the training room who won Lifter of the Year honors at Ole Miss in 2006 … Looks natural reading plays and also seems to be in position to make the tackle … Keeps his feet on the move and shows good urgency closing on the ball … When he makes proper reads coming off the snap, he is instant in attacking the ball … Has the hand strength to take-on and shed blocks and it is rare to see him get pinned when he stays low in his pads and keeps his hands inside his frame and active … Makes proper body adjustments to bring down the ball carrier in the open … Takes on the lead blockers with force, sinking his weight to push the opponent back and clog the rush lanes … Comes off blocks cleanly to redirect and make the play working in-line … Shows good explosion taking-on the ball carrier through the holes … Keeps his balance when he extends his hands to defeat cut blocks and has the sudden burst to close when chasing ball carriers along the perimeter … Has the speed to reach and make the cut off, showing good balance to shut down the cutback lanes … Is more of a hit-and-run type working toward the outside running plays, as he has the chase acceleration and takes proper angles to close … Has great ease of movement flowing to the ball from sideline-to-sideline … Does not need to gather, maintaining acceleration when trying to redirect … Slippery enough to get through traffic and can play the trail and adjust to the quick cuts by tight ends in man coverage … Has a good feel for the pass, getting to the flats with good urgency and gets a good jump on the ball working in the zone … Uses his lateral agility to bull rush into the backfield … Explosive hitter who wraps well and comes under with good control when playing in space … Will jolt an opponent on contact and plays with very good leverage when attempting to blitz, as he is quick to locate the quickest running lane to close on the quarterback … Makes every effort to collapse the pocket, but must keep his hands active to prevent from getting stacked on his inside charge … Has good speed for man coverage (just lacks a feel for where he should position himself) … Smooth in his backpedal and has good plant-and-drive agility to mirror backs and tight ends in the short area … Has the range to make plays away from his area and is very good at sifting through traffic.
Negatives: Gets walled-off by the larger blockers when he fails to keep his hands inside his frame … Lacks ideal bulk to control or split double teams … While he has the speed to cover deep, he is a bit of a liability in this area, as he looks slow to see the routes develop when working in the zone … Eyeballs the quarterback too long and is not good at anticipating the pass, struggling to get his head turned quick enough to track the ball in flight … Does not have the natural hands needed to snatch the interception, struggling to field the ball cleanly … Slippery in his moves through trash, but will get walled-off once a bigger blocker latches onto his jersey to ride him out … Plays with pain, but has had several injuries in recent years that lead to questions about his durability.
Compares To: Dan Morgan, Carolina — Willis is like Morgan in his ability to sift through traffic and flow to the ball with suddenness, or at least what the Panthers have seen from Morgan when he isn’t suffering from a rash of concussions … … Willis has valid run defense instincts and keeps the plays in front of him, but does struggle recognizing the pass plays … He has the speed to make plays along the sidelines and is an effective wrap-up tackler who does a nice job of taking the ball carrier down by attacking the runner’s outside leg … He needs to add bulk to defeat double teams better at the next level, but with his quickness, aggressiveness and willingness to learn, he will soon become a linebacker coach’s dream.
2005: Suffered a broken middle finger on his right hand, missing the second half of the Vanderbilt (Sept. 17) game, and sat out the following week against Wyoming (Sept. 24). Was forced to wear a cast on his hand to protect the injury the rest of the year … Suffered a partial AC joint right shoulder separation against The Citadel, but did not miss any game action … Broke a bone in his right foot against Arkansas (Nov. 12), but still played in the team’s final two games against Louisiana State (Nov. 19) and Mississippi State (Nov. 26).
Campus: 4.62 in the 40-yard dash … 365-pound bench press … 500-pound squat … 310-pound power clean … 38-inch vertical jump.
Combine: 4.51 in the 40-yard dash … Benched 225 pounds 22 times … 35-inch vertical jump … 9-foot-11 broad jump … 7.23 three cone drill.