Ole Miss Linebacker Shys Away From Praise

FAYETTEVILLE -- One could go out on a limb after one simple conversation and legitimately say Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis comes across as a pretty shy guy.

He doesn't seek praise and publicity and only accepts it reluctantly.

"It's not about me," he said. "It's about my team."

Willis, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior, is arguably the best defensive player in the Southeastern Conference this season.

And he doesn't even know it.

He leads the SEC in tackles with 90. He's averaging 12.9 tackles per game. He has 11 tackles for losses, totaling 40 yards and has 3 sacks.

Pretty good numbers for a guy who played at Class A Bruceton, Tenn., where he first started getting all his press clippings.

He was the West Tennessee Player of the Year and voted Class A Mr. Football in Tennessee, to boot, his senior year.

That's mighty impressive for a big fella from a small school.

His scrapbook has gotten much thicker since coming to Ole Miss, but none of that seems to matter to this soft-spoken player who doesn't talk much about himself.

Willis sheds praise like blocking fullbacks or pulling guards.

So, why is he so good?

"It's been a blessing," Willis said. "Everyday, I'm thankful. I can't take anything for myself. It's a blessing from God and having great coaches."

Willis truthfully doesn't keep up with his statistics, didn't even know he was the league's leading tackler.

Somebody had to tell him.

"Until just now, I really didn't know how many tackles I had," Willis said. "To me, it's really not that important to me. I guess I don't even think about it. I just try and go out there and play and try and help this team win.

"With that comes other things. I'm just having fun with my teammates. Those individual things don't really matter. It's nice and all, but not that important.

"Not really."

Willis, a legitimate All-American candidate, has as many tackles this season as he did in his first two collegiate seasons combined. He had 20 in 2003 and 70 more, along with 5 sacks, in 2004.

Why the big jump in numbers? Maybe because he didn't start a game in either of those two years.

Or ...

"I don't know, just the will to go out there and give it your all," Willis said. "You know, having teammates around you that are doing their job. Without them, I wouldn't be able to have those 90 tackles this season.

"That allows me to do my job."

His job Saturday will be helping Ole Miss stay in contention for a possible bowl bid when it hosts Arkansas at 1 p.m. Saturday in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

Willis knows getting to a bowl is a tall order, especially since it still must play Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State.

But ...

"To be honest, I think anything is possible," Willis said. "You know, but we aren't really concentrating on a bowl right now. We have to take one game at a time.

"You know, we have to start this weekend, worry about Arkansas. We know we have to take care of them because that's our first step. We are not emphasizing the bowl thing. We are just trying to win this next game."

That, of course, starts with Arkansas, which brings a 2-6 overall record and 0-5 SEC mark into Oxford, Miss., on Saturday.

"I mean, Arkansas their team is good," Willis said. "A lot of times a team can play tremendously and their record not be that good. I think that's the case with Arkansas. That's the way football is these days. You've got to prepare hard for every team. We have a lot of respect for them and we know we'll have our hands full.

"We'll have to come out and play football Saturday."

Until recently, Willis was one of the most recognizable players -- discounting all the stats he's piled up for avid numbers crunchers --simply because he wore a huge cast on this right hand.

Actually, it looked more like a club.

"I've got it off now," Willis said. "I hurt my hand it in the Vanderbilt game (a 31-23 loss on the road Sept. 17), trying to tackle (Vandy quarterback) Jay Cutler."

"Patrick Willis is physical," said Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt. "He's a tough player. This is a tough team that hasn't given up very many points."

Willis is one major reason why because he's got 68 solo tackles, but concedes he'll need more help Saturday.

"We'll all have to play our best against Arkansas," Willis said. "We just have to play fundamental football and get where we have to get and play 100 percent whatever the outcome is. Whatever happens, happens.

"I hope it's good."

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