Willis is NFL's best of October

One of the brightest spots in the 49ers' fading season was further illuminated Wednesday when it was announced that linebacker Patrick Willis has been named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for October. While acknowledging that the honor is justification for his hard work and high performance, Willis takes it as just another daily stride in the learning and building process of his pro career.

The hard work and learning process, Willis said earnestly, has only just begun.

"I came in to college to work and hopefully someday be at this level," Willis said, "and I left college hoping someday I can be at this level and work just as hard. Each day is a working process for me, a learning process, and I just wake up with an open mind, and just come ready to work and be a better ball player when I walk off the field at the end of the day."

And that's usually the way it works with Willis, who seems to get better every day, every game … heck, maybe even every play.

Since the moment he arrived at training camp and began rocking heads at the end of July, to when he moved out the team's 2006 leader in tackles and sacks to become a starter in mid-August, to when he began the season by winning back-to-back NFL Defensive Rookie of the Week honors in September, Willis truly has been taking a step-by-step climb up the ladder of NFL success.

The past month in particular has featured exemplary performance by one of the league's rising young defenders.

Even though he played only three games during the month because San Francisco had an Oct. 14 bye, Willis recorded 43 tackles (27 solo) during the month, according to 49ers' coaches' review of game films. Official statistics recorded by the NFL have him with 35 stops during the month – a game-high 12 against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 7, a game-high 13 against the New York Giants on Oct. 21 and a game-high 10 last week against the New Orleans Saints.

Willis leads the NFL in tackles per game and has 73 in seven games. He ranks second in the NFL in total tackles behind Tampa Bay's Barrett Ruud, who has 78 in eight games.

Willis quickly has become a leader by example on a San Francisco defense that had been carrying the team before it was riddled last week for a season-worst 438 yards. That dropped San Francisco five slots in the NFL rankings to No. 22 in total defense.

Willis, the No. 11 overall selection in the April draft, now has been San Francisco's leading tackler in six of the team's seven games.

"He didn't get that award for no reason," said veteran Derek Smith, who lines up beside Willis at inside linebacker and is second on the team with 61 tackles. "He's been coming along and doing a really good job."

According to 49ers tackle totals, Willis is on a pace to finish with 214 this season, which would shatter Smith's franchise record of 189 in 2003. Willis, in fact, moved into Smith's starting slot at left inside linebacker in August, with Smith sliding over to the right side in place of Brandon Moore, who led the 49ers with 114 tackles and 6.5 sacks last year but now plays sparingly as a reserve.

As is his style, Willis credits his teammates and coaches for putting him in a position for league-wide honors. Willis came to the 49ers eager to learn and willing to work, and he has been a sponge for the direction and knowledge offered by others.

"I came in hungry," Willis said. "If I'd have came in and didn't do anything different than from what I did in college, then I don't think I could have been as productive as I have been. But coach (Mike) Singletary and some of my teammates, they've been with me, they help me day in and day out, and that's really helped me a lot.

"Nobody really sees what goes on behind the cameras, but each day they're out there working with me and coach Singletary is out there making me a better ball player. Guys like Jeff (Ulbrich) and Brandon and Derek … Those guys, you know, they left their egos, they didn't let me coming in as a first-round pick get to them. They helped me out, and I owe a lot to all of them."

Willis is in rare territory indeed and doing things no other rookie linebacker has done in franchise history. Willis has registered double digits in tackles in each of San Francisco's seven games. Dating back to 1976, no rookie 49ers linebacker has started his career with even four consecutive games of double-digit tackles.

The 49ers will reach midseason with Sunday's game against the Falcons in Atlanta, and Willis already has two defensive rookie of the week awards and now a defensive rookie of the month honor to go along with it, an indication somebody better start clearing a lot of space in his trophy case.

"It's a great honor," Willis said of his latest accolade. "I thank God for it and I thank my teammates and coaches for it, working with me each day and being behind me and having faith that I can get the job done. I'm just going to continue to stay humble and work hard each day and give my teammates everything I have."

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