Willis plays for many this season

Patrick Willis is eager for preseason camp to begin next week. He says while it's been a tough last couple of weeks, he looks forward to playing this season as the recipient of the Chucky Mullins Courage Award and also for his brother who died in a drowning accident just a handful of days ago.

HOOVER, Ala. - The Patrick Willis story is one that's been as prominent as any the past few days. Rightly so.

Well documented are a lot of points concerning the Rebels all-star linebacker. The most painful one obviously deals with his brother's recent death in a drowning accident near their hometown of Bruceton, Tenn. Patrick told the media here that he was handling things as well as he could and that he says he will play for his brother this season.

As we already knew, he'll be playing as the recipient of the Chucky Mullins Courage Award this season as well. But it all appears to be situations the mature and experienced Willis can handle, likely better than most.

And despite it all, Willis is a focused man. He says he can't even tell you the Rebel schedule past game one.

"All I know is that our first game is Memphis," said last season's Scout.com SEC defensive player of the year who also was named a first-team All-American by at least a couple of polls after the 2005 season. "Other than that, I really don't know how the schedule lays out."

Coaches and reporters know Willis better than he knows the Ole Miss schedule, it appears. The league's coaches selected him as the lone unanimous choice in their preseason balloting a few days ago. At the SEC Media Days, the scribes and broadcasters voted him first-team All-SEC linebacker. He's also been selected preseason first-team All-American by at least nine publications and websites.

Willis has had some injuries along the way. Last season at various points he had a broken middle finger on his right hand that was covered with a club for much of the campaign, a sprained left knee, a right mid-foot sprain, and a partial AC joint separation of his right shoulder. And he still made first-team All-American and was one of the top defenders in the SEC.

This spring he missed all drills due to foot surgery. He's expected to be at full strength, according to his head coach.

"As I understand it, Patrick is very healthy right now and is ready to go," Coach Ed Orgeron said Thursday during his time with the media. "I will protect Patrick during two-a-days. I don't know how much I'm going to practice him yet. I have to see him run, and of course I haven't been able to see him work out yet (because of NCAA rules that coaches can't watch players during the summer workouts before preseason team practice begins). It is very important that we keep Patrick healthy and ready to play on gameday."

That's been a challenge in the past. But Patrick Willis has always met those challenges and more with all he's got to give. He'll do the same in 2006.

"I'm looking forward to camp starting next week," said the 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior. "I think we'll be able to compete with the teams we play. I think it will be an interesting season for us."

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Willis was joined by sophomore Michael Oher as the only two UM players selected by the media on any of the three teams. The 6-5 and 1/2, 330-pounder from Memphis was a second-team pick. Auburn had the most with 12 players selected.

Auburn was also the pick of the media to not only win the SEC West but the overall SEC crown. The Tigers are supposed to face SEC East champion Florida in Atlanta if the media proves it knows what it's talking about.

The rest of the West, in order according to the media, is LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State.

In the East, Georgia was picked second followed by Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt.

If you rank them overall in order of how the reporters and broadcasters called it, Kentucky edges out Ole Miss for ninth, while after the Rebels it's Mississippi State in 11th and Vanderbilt 12th.

The first game of the SEC season happens to be a conference matchup. Mississippi State will host South Carolina on Thursday night, Aug. 31 in a nationally televised game.

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There seemed to be a lot of praise for Ole Miss upgrading its schedule. Several teams have added BCS foes to their slates since the NCAA has allowed a 12th game now.

Some feel one of the best ways to sell season tickets is to upgrade the schedule. I personally believe winning makes the biggest difference, and then who you play comes after that at some point.

But I do like the addition of Missouri and Wake Forest to the schedule. Other league members are playing new-to-their-schedule BCS foes as well - like Colorado at Georgia, Southern Cal at Arkansas, Washington State at Auburn, Duke at Alabama, West Virginia at Mississippi State, Arizona at LSU, and California at Tennessee.

Only Vanderbilt, by playing at Michigan and hosting Duke, joins Ole Miss this season in adding two "new" teams to its schedule from BCS conferences.

So if adding some of these lesser-name teams hurts season ticket sales, why then did Steve Spurrier say South Carolina has sold every ticket in its 80,000-seat house and yet hosts Wofford, Florida Atlantic, and Middle Tennessee State.

Or Florida, who will have no more tickets left to sell when kickoff arrives and yet hosts Southern Mississippi, Central Florida, and Western Carolina as non-SEC foes.

Or Alabama hosting Hawaii, Louisiana-Monroe, and Florida International and, while still having some tickets left to sell, will likely have 90,000-plus crowds for those games in their enlarged campus stadium.

Point? Ole Miss has upgraded its non-SEC schedule this season in the eyes of many moreso than most teams in the SEC. And winning always means more to the fans who buy tickets than who you play in non-conference games, although playing bigger name teams does help draw more attention nationally.

But it's all good and it will be tee-it-up time before you know it. On a Sunday afternoon. In Oxford. On national TV. When the second-ever football number at Ole Miss is retired.

Against Memphis, which is the only team Patrick Willis knows for sure the Rebels play in non-conference games anyway. Just win, whatever team lines up on the other side. That's what matters most when it's all said and done.

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