BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Patrick Willis slowly walked into the luxurious Wynfrey Hotel Ballroom here Wednesday and took his seat at the player's back table. Entering the ballroom from an obscure side door, Willis entered the media foray without the name recognition that other players, such as Florida quarterback Chris Leak or Tennessee defensive back Jason Allen, received. Only Mississippi's small contingent of reporters, out of the nearly 700 media members in attendance, even seemed to notice Willis' arrival. It was quite the contrast from the scene that was unfolding around him, as new Rebel head coach Ed Orgeron answered a mob of media speculation about his first meeting with the team and fellow player Micheal Spurlock fielded questions about overcoming last year's disappointing season.
But, then again, that's exactly the way the humble Willis likes it. As he took in the scene around him, a media member asked him for an opening comment. Willis' was simple. "I'm glad to be here," he said.
But Willis' presence at SEC Media Days represents the Ole Miss coaches' confidence that the 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior linebacker is primed for a breakout season. Orgeron, who will manage the head coaching duties and serve as the team's defensive coordinator, called Willis "the quarterback of my defense" after spring practice.
"It does add a little bit of pressure on me, but it's also kind of expected," Willis said. "Playing middle linebacker in Coach O's system has a lot of responsibilities. I think now I'm ready to carry those responsibilities and be the quarterback of the defense. The middle linebacker has to make the call that filters down through the other linebackers to the defensive line. I think I'm ready for that now, but I know with our defensive staff here I'll be ready in the fall if I'm not already.
"I'm just thankful for the opportunity to play. No matter what position I'm in, I'm going to take things one day at a time and one game at a time."
With a new coach and a new attitude, the atmosphere surrounding Ole Miss football isn't exactly the same as it was a year ago under former coach David Cutcliffe. And that's especially the case for the defense.
"Everything is more competitive this season," Willis said. "The energy level is up from years past. Everything has been about competing. Everything is a competition, from the way we warm-up to the last drill of the day during practice. It's exciting. We're practicing really hard now. We don't come out to practices and think we have it made anymore just because we're the No. 1 (player at a position). We have great guys playing right behind us, so you don't have any chance to let up.
"We don't have any laid-back practices anymore. Even the walk-throughs are almost like a run now. You can't do anything else but have a lot of energy, and after a while you start to get used to it. Now doing things like that is like second-nature to us."
That change in tempo and energy has brought players like Willis a new hope, especially when trying to forget last season's 4-7 campaign and forge new beginnings for this year's team.
"This a new season for us," Willis said. "We can't dwell on things that happened last season. We can only look forward to the future of this season and make it better. The freshmen are on campus for this season right now and we are about to start practices soon. I don't even look at last season any more. I'm looking at this season and what we need to do to get better."
And for Willis, that means making sure that the defense is ready to set the tone as soon as fall practice starts in August.
"We know what the defense has to stand for, especially with Coach Orgeron being a defensive coordinator. We want the ball on defense. For us it is all about getting turnovers. I told my dad during the spring that I don't even think we need an offense. I think the defense can get the scoring done. Who knew we could get that many turnovers during the spring?"
And Willis isn't too worried about the effects of switching to a new 4-3 defensive scheme after studying for three seasons under a 4-2-5 format.
"Learning the 4-3 was a lot easier than the 4-2-5. The 4-3 is not a complicated defense. They give you a call, and you know exactly what you have to do. You don't have to worry about looking over and getting the different calls or for your teammates having to do that. Now the middle linebacker gets the call and you go out there and play. It's not complicated, you just get to go out there and play freely."
For Willis, playing freely might mean racking up triple-digit tackles and earning his way onto what so many pre-season SEC magazines have predicted for him: an All-SEC type season. But for Willis, none of that really matters too much. All he wants is for Ole Miss to learn how to win again – and soon.
"Our team expectations are higher than the expectations we have for ourselves as individuals," Willis said. "We know we're going to have some big games as a team. We just want to never quit as a team, no matter how tough things get. In the SEC you can be down by 21 and look over and then be up by 21. You have to know how to secure a victory and how to hold on to one. I think both sides of the ball will be able to do that this year."
Only time will tell if Willis' pre-season predictions come true. But one thing is for certain: Rebel fans, like most opposing quarterbacks, might want to watch where No. 49 is at all times this fall.
Willis brings quiet confidence, intensity to Rebs
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