Off the football field for post practice interviews, James Willis is soft spoken, thoughtful and polite. On the field, a metamorphosis takes place. The competitive juices begin to flow and it is clear why Tommy Tuberville wanted him as his defensive coordinator for the Texas Tech Red Raiders. While still obviously thoughtful and knowledgeable about the game and respectful toward the players, being soft spoken is not an attribute that carries on to the field. This is not a criticism. It is merely an observation. He is an absolute joy to watch coach and interact with the team.
Willis coaches with a great deal of passion for the game and wants his players to have the same. His resume is impressive and evidence of his love and passion. For those who might not know, here are some of his playing career highlights:
- Played seven years in the NFL and one in the XFL
Three-year starter for the Philadelphia Eagles
Three-year starter at Auburn recording 344 career tackles
First team All-SEC in ‘92
SEC Co-Defensive freshman of the year ‘90
Voted to Auburn's All-Decade team for the ‘90s
Oh, and lest I forget, he also happens to be in possession of a national championship ring courtesy of his coaching contributions on last year's Alabama football team.
With Willis in charge of the defense, there is not a wasted rep … not a wasted play … no lagging behind. If he sees it, the consequences are immediate. He's said, "Nobody's position is safe. Every practice is an audition. At this point, the so-called depth chart is merely a list of names to use for lining up do drills."
In two weeks of spring practice, this defense has shown promise that Red Raider fans can be excited about. They are hustling, attacking, running to the ball and, since the pads have gone on, will bust chops if given the opportunity. Form tackling is a warm up exercise.
It seems to be the norm for spring practices to have 25 periods with each period being 5 minutes. When the final horn sounds, signaling the end, the full team gathers round and Tuberville visits with them for a few minutes. The team takes a knee resting and the various position coaches are standing spread throughout. When that meeting is done, typically, the offense leaves the field. Pay particular attention to the fact I said the offense leaves the field. Not so for the defense.
Coach Willis has them move to the north end of the Jones where he conducts his "defense only" meeting. That might last another 10 to 15 minutes. After one recent practice and his defense only meeting, he then had the defense form a giant circle that probably went from the goal line to the 35 or 40-yard line. Willis was in the center. The entire defense then proceeded to do conditioning "up-downs" on his command until their legs were rubber. They rested a moment and then more fun began. As an aside and a little background, there is much emphasis in getting on and off the field for substitutions and transitions. To that end, Willis had a roster in his hand and started calling player's numbers. When a number was called, the "named" player sprinted to the center of the circle and then turned around and sprinted back to his original position. It was an impressive exercise. I wanted to sit down just being an observer.
There is much this defense has to learn and everybody is aware of it. They've yet to prove one thing under game conditions. That will come soon enough. If there's one thing of which you can be certain, this defense is becoming one that will be exciting, make plays and win games.
Willis summed it up best when he said, "We don't focus on having a defensive scheme. We focus on having a defense." When he said that looking my direction, in a soft, almost hoarse but still firm post practice voice … and a set jaw, I believed him. At 57, I was looking for pads and a helmet.