That work begins on Dec. 14 when the Tigers begin bowl practices for the AT&T Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day in Dallas. With both Tray Blackmon and Merrill Johnson gaining a great deal of experience this season in starting roles and players such as Patrick Trahan, Chris Evans and Courtney Harden also seeing action, Willis says that group along with the return to full speed of Steve Gandy should give them a solid nucleus of experienced players.
"We developed some younger guys during training camp like Patrick Trahan and Tray by getting him out there and working with him," Willis says. "It really hurt losing Gandy early in training camp because he was on the road to having an outstanding season.
"The injury set us back a little bit, not so much the thigh, but I think his knee bothered him some during the season. Overall he got frustrated some and he fought through it. We're really looking forward to this bowl time and getting some work with the younger guys."
Expected to be a star at the linebacker position when he was recruited out of LaGrange, Ga., High, Blackmon didn't disappoint when he finally got on the field after being suspended the first six games of the year. A physical player who instantly became a playmaker for the Tigers, Blackmon's emergence gave the Auburn defense a different look, says Willis.
"Tray Blackmon, after serving his time, came back in and did a good job," Willis says. "He came in and did what he does, he makes plays. He's very instinctive and only plays at one speed. That pays off a lot."
Patrick Trahan is an instinctive linebacker who makes plays every time he's on the field.
Like Blackmon, fellow redshirt freshman Patrick Trahan delivered when given the opportunity in 2006. While his time was limited because he played behind an ironman in Herring, Willis says that Trahan showed him flashes of brilliance at times and is definitely a player to watch during bowl practices and in the spring.
"If you look back at some of the young guys that really stepped up I think Patrick Trahan improved tremendously throughout the season," Willis says. "It wasn't just one game or early or late, it was constant throughout. He was pretty consistent in his improvement. I'm really looking forward to coaching this guy and I can't wait to get him on the field during the bowl game and next year also."
One thing Willis will have to work with next season is numbers. With freshmen Craig Stevens and Hendrick Leverette impressive it makes for plenty of trial and error sessions for Willis and defensive coordinator Will Muschamp before next season looking for just the right combination. Willis says that's part of the plan beginning in bowl practices.
"I think you have to play around like that a little bit to at least get it on film," Willis says. "We as a staff are very confident in Craig Stevens and what he can do. I'm really eager to get him back out there after going through the redshirt workouts with Coach Yox (Kevin Yoxall). I see him walking around and he's huge. That's going to help us out and help him out. He's going to be a good player. He's smart, instinctive, a big body, and he can run.
"It's going to be fun looking at Trahan and Craig Stevens and some young guys stepping up like Chris Evans and Courtney Harden and you've got Gandy and Tray and Merrill. Those are some good players."
Craig Stevens was impressive from his first day on the practice field this fall.
A player Tiger fans have already had the chance to see in action is Stevens. Playing well before suffering a hamstring injury in 2006, Stevens will receive a medical redshirt and will be playing as a redshirt freshman next season. Willis says because of his size and smarts Stevens could be in line to see action in the middle, but that's a decision that won't be made hastily.
"He played will when he first started and got comfortable with that," Willis says. "Him being a young guy you kind of want to let him stay at one position to get comfortable with that. I think we have to look at that and find out what guy is going to be our mike linebacker. With what we do on defense a lot of times the will linebacker is becoming the mike. Those two positions are kind of interchangeable so I think we can play around with that and see what happens."
If it's not Stevens then the middle could be manned by Blackmon. Not the classic middle linebacker in terms of size, Blackmon more than makes up for that by his aggression and power at the point of attack. Willis says Blackmon is the perfect player to play in the middle if that's how it works out.
"He definitely is," Willis says of Blackmon. "He's so firm. He's good at the point of attack. He's so instinctive and can feel the pull and see the whole picture. He's one of the guys we'll consider for the middle also."