Willis: 'My expectations are beyond limits'

Patrick Willis has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts. Oh, don't worry. He's still the same rock 'em, sock 'em, take-no-prisoners linebacker on the field. It's off the field that there's been a perceptible change. A year removed from one of the greatest seasons by a rookie defender in NFL history, Willis is a confident veteran now. And it shows in every move he makes and every word he articulates.

It showed in every move Willis made during the 49ers' spring minicamp earlier this month, when the second-year linebacker practically had a glow about him as he ran the defensive huddle and effortlessly locked onto plays as though he knew what was coming on practically every snap.

That's Willis now - he's the heart of the San Francisco defense. The entire unit revolves around him, like planets revolving around the sun in the solar system. Just weeks into his second year with the team, Willis already is San Francisco's best player - bar none - and the team is proceeding forward with that thought in mind.

After selecting defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer with San Francisco's first pick in the NFL draft, Niners coach Mike Nolan said, "Patrick Willis is arguably the best defensive player in the NFL. The guys in front of him have a lot to do with how good those guys are. This (selecting Balmer) was key in protecting the guys that we think are the foundation of what we do."

Willis is that foundation. And the foundation, in a football sense, is growing up.

That's not to say Willis - who had to become a man at a young age during a tough upbringing - wasn't a mature individual when he arrived on the scene as San Francisco's top draft pick in 2007.

But during San Francisco's spring minicamp last year - a weekend of initiation rites for the team's rookies - Willis was a bit reserved, shy and quiet. He wasn't one to overstep any boundaries.

Fast forward to this year's minicamp - with a spectacular debut season now in Willis' rear-view mirror - and you see a completely different individual.

Willis still doesn't overstep boundaries. He isn't brash, and he doesn't brag. But there is palpable excitement in his voice now. There is hope and conviction. There is the spirit of a young man who has seen it and been through it now, and has a true sense of the greatness he can attain.

"Oh, yeah," Willis said, his eyes sparkling. "I see the new guys and I'm like, man, that was me last year. I feel so much better now than I did last year at this time, that's for sure. I'm more confident now - right here, right now - than I ever was last year during the whole entire season. Now, I make the calls out there with confidence. I know what's going on around me."

For a rookie still feeling his way around in 2007, even the worst critic must admit Willis did pretty darn good. He led the NFL with 174 tackles - 33 more than Denver's D.J. Williams, who finished second in the league in that category.

According to San Francisco coaches' review of game films, Willis finished with a franchise-record 226 tackles, smashing the previous team mark of 189 set by Derek Smith in 2003. Willis had 10 or more tackles in 15 of San Francisco's 16 games - and 15 or more tackles in nine games.

But with his first NFL offseason behind him, San Francisco's tackle machine says he can do better. In fact, he promises he will do better.

"I know, for me, it's nowhere near where I think I'm capable of being," Willis said.

That's saying a lot, considering what Willis accomplished in his first NFL season. He was a landslide choice as the NFL's 2007 Defensive Rookie of the Year, earning 48 of the 50 votes cast by media that cover the NFL. Willis also was named first-team All-Pro, earning more votes on that team than any other middle linebacker.

But Willis was just getting started in 2007, and this is a guy whose expectations aren't of the ordinary. Willis' expectations are through the roof.

"I feel like the only expectations that should bother you are the ones that you have for your own, if you have them set high," Willis said. "So that's where I kind of go with it."

Willis continued: "I know the fans have expectations, I know the coaches have expectations. For me as a player, I have high expectations for myself and those are the ones that I try to really take upon myself to really do well in. If I do those for myself, then I feel like I'm satisfied. But also, saying that, I'm never satisfied. So that's why I know my expectations are beyond limits that fans can have or coaches or anyone else, with all due respect to them having those expectations."

Willis had to throw in that last line there, because that's the kind of individual he is. He would never make light of someone else's expectations of him. But, while the reasonable NFL observer would expect Willis to simply build on what he accomplished as a rookie, that just won't be enough for the athletic 23-year-old.

"Not by any means," Willis said. "I can go back and watch the first game of the season to the last game of the season and pick out play after play after play where I should have done this better, I could have done this better, or if I just would have been here or looked there or seen that … No matter how long you play the game, you can always get better each day."

And, as Willis walks through the San Francisco locker room these days, there is a new presence about him. Maybe it's something that comes with going to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, gaining those All-Pro honors, being adorned with so many rookie awards.

Willis is now embossed with poise. A veteran's poise. Make that, an extremely successful veteran's poise. In his second spring with the 49ers, he has been transformed from restrained rookie to confident team leader.

"You know, a lot of leadership is done by your performance," Nolan said. "Patrick has established that."

Has he ever. But Willis has only just begun. He has a certain standard to uphold now, and new standards to reach and strive for.

"My motto is to get better each day," he said. "Last year was last year. That's in the past now. Now it's all about this year and being the very best I can be when it's time for the season to start. As far as that goes, I just take it one day at time, continue to work - and just go all-out."

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