On the rise: Patrick Willis

Now that Patrick Willis is in his element, he has become a pad-popping tackle machine that quickly has caught everybody's attention at 49ers training camp with his speed to the football, true-to-form tackling technique and – especially – the ferocity with which he delivers blows. The team's prized first-round draft pick's getting better each practice as he makes an early statement that he belongs.

Willis was all over the field during Tuesday's morning practice, and even he had to admit afterwards, "Today was good."

Willis seemed a little unsure of his assignments and maybe even himself back in May when he joined the team during its post-draft minicamp, but now that he's wearing the tools of his trade on his shoulders, both the exuberance and confidence in his game is slowly seeping out.

Or make that, pouring all over the practice field.

Even though it's not full contact when the 49ers go toe-to-toe during team drills, Willis makes it appear otherwise with his crunching confrontations. Willis stops on contact in hit-and-release fashion, but the force of his impact sent more than a few ball-carriers to the ground Tuesday.

"Everything is starting to come to me a little bit more now," Willis said after coming off the field. "The big thing is just learning a little bit each day and getting better in every aspect and just not staying the same. Each practice, I just want to do something better than I did the day before.

"It was a lot more physical than it was yesterday. That's part of football. When it's all said and done, our job is to go get the ball. It's to be physical, but we also got to stop the ball."

Willis has the tools to be one of the really, really good ones at stopping the ball. He was a terror at the University of Mississippi, where he gained acclaim as the best linebacker in college football last year, and he certainly is living up to his top billing and high draft position after the 49ers selected him with the No. 11 overall pick in April.

The San Francisco coaching staff coached Willis for a week at the Senior Bowl in January, so they already had a pretty good idea what they were getting. But even though Willis continues to practice with the second-team base defense behind starter Derek Smith, he is on the field with the first team in many sub-packages, and it's going to be difficult for the 49ers to keep him off the field when they consider all the things he can do when he's on it.

"I was just hoping that we would get a good player," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "Big players make big plays. Patrick's a good football player and he moves very well. We're easing him in. Obviously, he's starting in the sub-package and not the base package and we'll see how far he goes with the sub before we do much with base."

Willis has a nose for the football in more ways than one. He picked up his second interception in as many days Tuesday, showing good awareness and recognition skills to snatch a tipped pass out of the air.

He is definitely a player on the rise at 49ers camp, and the beauty of it is, he's only getting started.

"It's just something I'm trying to establish with this organization," Willis said. "Just show them why they picked me, and just show them I can play a little bit. I mean, I'm not saying I'm ready to go out there and play a full ballgame, I'm not saying that at all, because I still have a lot of work to go in this training camp. So each day I try to get better, and hopefully when it's said and done I'll be able to get a chance to go out there and do something."

Willis will get that chance, all right. Because he's already doing something now, and the summer has just begun.


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