Willis in a hurry to get where he's going

Patrick Willis, the fastest inside LB to enter the NFL this year, isn't used to coming along slowly. The team's prized first-round draft pick flew around the field last week during 49ers minicamp, showing the trademark quickness that made him one of the most coveted defenders in college football last season, but in many ways he still felt he was back at school instead of starting his pro career.

He never played in a 3-4 system at Ole Miss, where he was the undisputed heart of the defense, so everything he learned during his first practices with team came as something new.

"I've got to learn it all," Willis said. "You got to crawl before you can walk, and that's where I'm at right now. It makes me mad that I can't get everything right, but that's part of learning. You have to make mistakes and learn from them."

Willis is the first to admit the intricacies of San Francisco's 3-4 defensive system are passing him by at this early juncture of his career. Slated to be a key component of that scheme by the time the regular season rolls around, Willis says so far it's all a blur.

"I want to be where the veterans are, I want to have it all down, I want to get it all right now," Willis said.

Willis, winner of the of the Butkus Award and Lambert Trophy last season as the nation's top college linebacker, has plenty of time to grow into the system. But he's a young man who is accustomed to getting where he's going in a hurry.

Willis covered 40 yards in 4.49 seconds at the NFL Combine in February, one of the fastest times turned in by any linebacker. A month earlier, he impressed San Francisco coaches throughout the week of Senior Bowl practices with his speed and find-the-football prowess. The 49ers' staff coached the South squad at the event.

Though linebacker is a position where the 49ers have some of the best veteran depth on their roster, San Francisco didn't hesitate to grab Willis when he still was available with the No. 11 overall selection in the draft. Willis, who plans to return to work out with his new team full-time beginning May 16, said he received a lot of help from the 49ers' veteran inside linebackers, including Derek Smith, Brandon Moore and Jeff Ulbrich.

"When we're out there they try to help me as much as they can and say, 'Calm down.' I have to," Willis said. "They're helping me all they can. They've been great. When they tell me they're learning stuff too, I don't feel as bad."

Willis will compete with Smith for a starting job at the weak inside linebacker spot during training camp. Smith recorded more than 120 tackles each of his first nine seasons in the NFL, but he had 93 tackles last season - ending his streak of five consecutive seasons leading the team in tackles.

Smith was bothered by an eye condition that affected his play a year ago. He was unable to move his left eye up and to the left. The problem was diagnosed as a muscle strain. He underwent surgery February 26. He said his eyesight is fine, but added, "In my left eye, I'll always have permanent damage up there."

Smith, 32, figures to play two more seasons - the length of the contract he signed last year. Therefore, he said he was not surprised when the 49ers invested a first-round pick in Willis.

"I'm sure he's a great athlete and a great football player, if they took him that high," Smith said. "That's the way the NFL works. I think he'll make our team better. You always have to be thinking ahead."

Willis is also thinking ahead. After all, he figures to be with the 49ers for a long time, so he has to place his current struggles in perspective.

"I'm going to be here for a while, so I'm going to have to make it work," he said.

But Willis is still waiting for the game to slow down. The sooner that happens, the faster he'll make his impact felt.

"I haven't really made any plays yet," he said. "It's kind of like I'm just out there in a jungle, just lost and not knowing where to go. I can read a playbook, but when you get out there and things get to moving fast, I'm not as crisp as I like to be. And I want to be the best."


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