"The guys are improving everyday," said Willis. "That is what I try to ask out of all of them... that includes the young guys. If there is one thing you need to improve on, go out that next day and work on it. That is what most of the guys are doing. I'm happy for them.. like what I've seen."
Markus Kuhn in particular has caught the eye of Willis. A native of Weinheim, Germany, he arrived in 2007 and was forced to play as a true freshman. He has played in 34 games, starting three contests, and Kuhn has totaled 70 tackles with 9.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks, 12 quarterback pressures, and four pass breakups
"Markus has really stepped up to the plate," said Willis. "He has never relinquished. Markus will sometimes have a brain freeze, but he has had an unbelievable offseason and camp. It is paying off for him."
An unknown freshman has also generated major buzz during fall camp. Art Norman checks in at just 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, but he has been turning heads with his play at defensive end after standing out last fall on the scout team.
"Art Norman, I call him the quiet assassin," said Willis. "He's not going to get down in there and mix it up with the big buys, but his footwork and quickness is outstanding. I'll tell you, he reminds me a lot of myself.
"When I recruit a defensive lineman, the standard is set by what I did and how I played. If I don't see a lot of those things in a kid that allowed me to have success, I'm a little reluctant to take him."
Willis played defensive end and defensive tackle for 11 seasons in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills, and Washington Redskins after an outstanding college career at Northeastern. He played in 139 NFL games, totaling 59 sacks, and at 6-foot-1 and 260 pounds he was an undersized lineman who succeed due to his quickness and high-motor.
Those are two traits that he sees in Norman.
"Art runs and runs," Willis stated. "He has a great motor. In fact, he has a tendency to tire himself out after just a few plays because of his motor running so high. It's like drag racing... you'll get the best out of that car for one race and then re-fuel.
"There are two things he is great at for a young player... rushing the passer and dropping [into coverage]. The kid knows how to read routes, and he takes coaching. He understands how to play and is smart. That is a good thing."
On the contrary, sophomore defensive end Sylvester Crawford has been coming along slow. Crawford enrolled in 2009 and was named Defensive Scout Team Player of the Week for two games, but a hip injury late in the year sidelined him for a lengthy period of time and last fall he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
"Sylvester is coming along slowly," Willis said. "His inactivity has made him take one step at a time, instead of a dramatic increase. He is going to be a rep guy."
The defensive end who arrived at NC State with Crawford, fellow sophomore Darryl Cato-Bishop, is in a battle for the starting defensive end job with junior college transfer McKay Frandsen. Cato-Bishop has a terrific blend of size and athleticism, but now it comes down to putting it all together. Last season he rotated between defensive end and defensive tackle, but the staff has decided to stick the 6-foot-4, 281-pounder at defensive end full-time and Willis says it is paying off.
"That decision has helped Darryl," Willis stated. "I want Darryl to be even better than what he is. He should be a few steps ahead of the guys behind him because on paper he has it all... the potential is there. He just hasn't shown it yet.
"Now, he is still developing, and he is settling in at defensive end. The hope is that will help him reach that level."
A reason why Willis is so upbeat about his position group is because of the leadership being provided by his seniors. Defensive tackles J.R. Sweezy, Markus Kuhn, and defensive end Jeff Rieskamp are leading the way.
"We have very good leadership," he stated. "Markus, J.R., and Jeff, those guys really stepping up to the plate. Some of the young kids may be over there not paying attention at times, and those three will step in their face and let them know that they have to pay attention. I've also been impressed with the checks and balances on themselves. Sometimes I'll here J.R. helping Markus and vice versa. That is always good to see.
"Providing leadership starts literally after the season is over, and the leadership has been outstanding."