A Willis under his wing

In Patrick Willis, Niners assistant head coach/defense Mike Singletary has a new pet project who's built in his image in the areas of high character and powerhouse performance. Singletary, a Hall of Fame LB in his playing days, got to know Willis well during Senior Bowl week, and here he gives his thoughts and impressions of Willis and what he brings to the 49ers as their first-round draft pick.

On his first impression of Willis at the Senior Bowl, where San Francisco's staff coached the North squad that featured Willis: "Good work ethic. Very coachable young man. I'm very excited to see what he brings to our defense. He certainly has a lot of tools - very talented, a lot of speed, good size to go with that speed and he finds the football. He makes a lot of plays – a playmaker. I'm very excited to have him."

On the time he and Willis spent together at the Senior Bowl: "I was very fortunate to have a lot of really good linebackers there and good-natured guys. He was just one of those guys that no matter how hard we worked, he always found a way to smile. He asked a lot of questions and I really liked that about him. We told him to do something one way, a particular technique, or whatever that was, you saw him the next time around really trying to work on that."

On Willis' family background: "I think that you know as well as I do that sometimes adversity – it may make a young man grow up quicker, but it certainly makes him more appreciative of what life is really all about and it's unfortunate that sometimes you have to find it out early. He is the guy that you can tell by being around him that he's very humble, just a very pleasant young man. You can tell he's really taken things in stride, put them in perspective and just continued to go forward."

On Willis' performance at the Senior Bowl: "Really what happened was that the guy playing at linebacker at the time was not doing a good job and when Patrick came to the sideline, I asked him if he could play outside back, if he could go and be more physical against the tight end and he said ‘I can do that'. So, I said ‘Hey, go do it' and it gave us a chance to solidify the close side better than we were doing it. He was able to go in and do an effective job."

On the insecurities of players that coaches sometimes see at the Senior Bowl: "I think it's one of those things where sometimes a kid is not quite sure of himself and maybe not want you to know what he doesn't know. As we've said before, Patrick is one of those kids that maybe has been through a lot and understands that it's not about being embarrassed, it's not about any of those things, it's about getting better. I think that's what he was all about – making sure that he got it right the next time around."

On Willis' upbringing: "I know a lot of guys that have to be in that situation where they have to step up to that next level and play that role. What it does is it really makes you appreciate what a single mom or a single dad have to do at that particular time, because so many times you think it just happens. You think it's by osmosis, it happens. When you begin to understand that bills have to be paid, and how important an education is, and all of those things, you begin to understand that life is about more than about me having fun."

On Willis' skills and how they'll translate to the 49ers' defensive system: "I think the biggest thing is we're going to continue to form our identity. Right now, the 3-4, the 4-3, the combination of the two – depending on the personnel that we end up with, which one we decide to play more of. Certainly, to me, a linebacker – if he can play in a 3-4, he can play in a 4-3 and you'll just be able to use his talent depending on what you have the front line doing. He certainly makes our defense faster, he certainly adds speed. It gives us some versatility."

On what players Willis compares to: "In all fairness to him, I will say this, he is probably the most obscure guy to me right now, just looking at him. Of all that he's been through, some of the little nicks and things that he had - I want to get him a clear mind, healthy body. I think his best football is ahead of him. I think there's a ton of upside and I'm really interested to see what he really has when he's just clear and free and ready to go."

On Willis' talent and ability: "When I look at him, the only thing I can say right now is where the ball is. Wherever the ball is, wherever it is, there's a good chance he's going to be around it. If he didn't make the play, he's going to be around the ball somewhere. I think that's a great place to start because he has good vision and certainly there are some technical things he has to work on, but he has all the intangibles. Just like a quarterback being able to make all the throws, he has all the intangibles to be a great backer."

On what stands out most about Willis: "I think certainly the speed. I think the other thing is the desire and the instinct to find the football. There are a lot of guys that have the speed, but can't find the football to save their life. He's the guy that somehow, some way, gets there."

On Willis' conditioning and what he might need to do to hone his skills: "I would think right now, with everything that he has, just being about to take the speed and the quickness and be able channel that into the technique of being playing linebacker. Just being able to shuffle from one side to the next and being able to not be fooled because a lot of times in college, a team will just take the ball and throw it out and just go run it down from one side to the next. At this level they know you've got a lot of speed. They're going to run some misdirection and counters and things like that. Now you have to be fast, but at the same time, be able to change direction and that sometimes take slowing the game down in your mind. That'll be the thing I'm excited about him doing."


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