Willis leading the way

He's planted on the 50-yard line, clapping his hands demonstratively and barking both orders and encouragement to the rows of teammates that stretch around him. Patrick Willis is in the middle of things at 49ers training camp, figuratively as well as physically, as he emerges as not only the leader of a defense being built around him, but also a focal leader of the entire team.

And that makes all kinds of sense. After all, Willis – at the tender age of 24 with two Pro Bowl berths behind him – might already be the best player on the team. He's certainly quickly becoming one of its most accomplished. Why shouldn't he move out front as one of San Francisco's visible leaders in his third season?

That seems to be the destiny coach Mike Singletary has planned for Willis, who is following in similar footsteps toward greatness blazed a quarter-century by Singletary during his Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bears.

"I'm kind of a molded image of him, as far as what he wants and how he wants me to play," Willis said.

That certainly can be seen in the way Willis plays. He set a franchise record for tackles while leading the NFL in that department during his auspicious rookie season of 2007, when Willis was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Willis followed that with an equally productive and spectacular second season last year, when he finished second in the NFL in tackles to Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson and further established himself as player around which the rest of the San Francisco defense revolves.

But now he's taking it a step further.

Singletary was the centerpiece of one of the NFL's greatest defenses during his Bears heyday of the 1980s. The leadership skills he developed in that role have put him in his position as a first-time head coach with the 49ers.

Now, as he follows along the same kind of path as a player during the early stages of his 49ers career, Willis is now a player to be heard as the team conducts its practice sessions this summer.

He's out front and center leading the charge every day in practice, and it seems only natural to see such a great young player quickly emerging as a natural leader.

"I'm not one of the people who says something every play just to hear myself speak," Willis said. "When something is not right, I feel it is my duty to speak as one of the captains. It's a challenge to make sure I am doing things that are necessary for me to be able to lead these guys."

As he prepares for his third NFL season, Willis has been anointed as the team's defensive captain and is clearly a player even his older San Francisco teammates look up to.

The Pro Bowl linebacker really is in the middle of things once practice begins.

He's a missile of speed and bone-jarring precision as he follows the football from sideline to sideline, flying past would-be blockers to get to the ball carrier during team drills.

He is one player that shines consistently during every practice session, always competing every play with a non-stop motor.

At 24, Willis is just entering the prime of his career. But the two-time All-Pro already has distinguished himself as a special performer and natural leader who is taking on both roles with passion and purpose.

"You try to lead by example, and Patrick is good in that he does everything extremely well, both on the field and off," 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes said.

Spikes, himself a two-time Pro Bowler, joined the 49ers last summer and quickly entrenched himself next to Willis to form a productive and formidable pair of starting inside linebackers in San Francisco's 3-4 defense.

Of course, nobody among San Francisco defenders can match the production of Willis. He had 185 tackles last year after being credited with a franchise-record 226 the season before.

Now Willis looks to continue that kind of progress as the linchpin of a San Francisco defense that is being built around him.

The 49ers finished No. 13 in the NFL's defensive rankings last season, matching the team's highest finish since 1997. With Willis leading the charge, the 49ers expect to finish in the top 10 this season and believe they can be a top-5 defense.

"His progression as a linebacker has elevated from his first year to his second and I think it's just going to elevate more," 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. "He knows what to do from a defensive standpoint and now he is going to try and focus on how the offense is going to attack us."

Willis also is putting focus on being a leader, not just of the defense but of the entire team.

"To tell you the truth, at times last year it didn't seem like the most natural thing for him to be doing," 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. "But that's something he's worked on a lot. Now, when he talks it's a lot more natural for him."

And when Willis talks like a leader at 49ers training camp, nothing could look much more natural.

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