NFL Draft Q&A: Ole Miss LB Patrick Willis

Things are going well for linebacker Patrick Willis. Not only have six teams invited him to their facilities for a visit, there is talk of teams trading up in the NFL Draft to secure his services. Find out what teams are interested, how his life outside of football has shaped him, who he compares to, and much more...

The Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers, and St. Louis Rams all had Willis in for a visit in the last several weeks.

Can you talk about all the work you do in the community and why you feel it's important?

Patrick Willis: I think giving back is one of the most important things a person can do as an individual, but also as an athlete because there's so many people that look up to you and want to be able to do what you do. Somebody that's not able and fortunate enough and not blessed with the kind of ability that you were blessed with and wish they were, they enjoy watching you play, they give you the hype, they want to be like you, they want to wear your jersey, they want to praise you. So I think a lot of times it's just good to give back to let them know that you do know they're out there and they've been supportive and they're being fans.

You had to become the man of the house at an early age. Can you talk about that impacted you?

Patrick Willis: I think it helped me to be able to grow up quick, and that's kind of how it is. I think that's how it's got to be once you get out of high school, whatever conference you step in you've got to be ready to compete and grow up fast, especially if you don't get that year to redshirt and learn the system and what-not. I think that really helped me grow up fast and I think really helped me step into the SEC the way I did and not redshirt.

But now you're about to enter the NFL. Do you think it's now time that you be selfish?

Patrick Willis: I really don't. I'm auditioning for the NFL and therefore I've got to give them everything I have to offer. I can't hold anything back because I want them to someday be able to pay me a check. If I'm auditioning for them, then I've got to go out and give them my all. There's no room for selfishness.

Can you talk about your Senior Bowl experience?

Patrick Willis: It was a great experience. I had a lot of fun just interacting with the other guys. A lot of them I'd met before through All-American banquets and award shows and things like that, but a lot of them it was my first time meeting them and it was great just to be coached by NFL personnel. It was wonderful. I had a great time down there.

Could you notice a big difference in the way you were coached as opposed to the coaching you got in college?

Patrick Willis: A little bit because I think Coach O. (Ed Orgeron) and Coach Singletary kind of got that same mentality, that mentality that they're going to coach to perfection, they're going to coach from authority, they're going to coach the way they want it to be done 100 percent. So I think from that aspect of it, I've had some coaching like that the last two years. And that's kind of how Coach O. portrayed himself as a head coach and also the way he portrays himself onto his assistant coaches, is to coach around perfection.

What is a question that teams are asking about you?

Patrick Willis: One of the questions that they ask me is, ‘You think you could play middle linebacker? You think you could play in a 3-4 scheme?' I said, ‘I believe I have the confidence that I can play any scheme.' I always had a perception that 3-4 linebackers had to be fairly big, like real stocky, but then I thought about it and I was like, well, Donnie Edwards, he's not really big at all, he's only about 220-something, he played in the middle. That's kind of where they can see me playing at.

Do you think you are better off inside or outside?

Patrick Willis: I don't know, I just try to portray that I could be an all-around athlete. I can be just as productive ... I just try to portray that I could be the best athlete all around. I don't know, I would love to play middle linebacker because I feel I have the ability to be able to cover ground and run from sideline to sideline and that's what I love to do.

Your coverage skills have come a long way since you started; what has been the key to that improvement?

Patrick Willis: I think the more you learn about the game of football, the more knowledge you learn, the better it'll make you as a person and just also your overall ability can help, too. When I first started playing in high school, we used the same defense all the time, so it was pretty much the same drops and everything, so you're used to seeing it. But once you get to college, one week you might face a team that's five wides, next week you might face a team that does a lot of play-action, so you've got to learn to adapt. And I think that going into my junior year when I finally got to start a lot, I wasn't really used to being in there every down and know how to play drops and this and that, and I think going into my senior year watching film and getting more knowledge of the game it really helped me out a lot.

Can you talk about what it meant to win the Butkus Award?

Patrick Willis: I don't know. Winning the Butkus was big. I really didn't know if I was going to win it. I just hoped that they could look at it because this guy (even though) he wasn't on a winning team, he was productive, he came out and played through adversity, even a losing season, and still was able to succeed two years in a row and be AP Defensive Player of the Year. I was hoping they'd look at that, instead of just saying, all right, his team wasn't good and therefore he wasn't good. It was a great honor. To me, I don't look at that like, just because I won the Butkus, I should be the first linebacker taken. I don't think that's how it is at all. It was just an honor to win it. I'm just blessed and I'm thankful.

What area of your game do you want to improve upon heading into an NFL camp?

Patrick Willis: I just want to improve on everything. It's not just one thing that there's room for improvement.

You were a team captain at Ole Miss; is it going to be difficult going to the NFL as a rookie where you're expected to be seen but not heard?

Patrick Willis: I'm just going to go into it with an open mind and just do the things that the coaches ask me to do, do the things that the older guys ask me to do and just hope that I can be of assistance to the team. I just want to come in and be humble and just have fun and just do what I need to do to help the team.

What current NFL player do you compare yourself to?

Patrick Willis: That's a good question. A lot of times, I try not to compare myself to any of those guys because I feel that I'm capable of enough to be a better guy – not out of conceit because I love those guys. I love the guys that play linebacker. They have some great, great, great talent, but at the same time I don't want to compare myself because I feel I have a chance to be better than those guys. But saying that with respect.

If I were to compare myself to anybody I'd probably just say Brian Urlacher because he's a guy that can drop in coverage and make plays and a guy that can also run sideline to sideline and make plays and go after the ball. I think right now he's the best linebacker in the game.

There are a lot of good linebackers — of course, Ray Lewis is good — but right now at this point in time I think Brian Urlacher has really taken over. But I really like Jonathan Vilma and Lofa Tatupu. To be honest, I don't know if he knows this, but when Coach Orgeron came in, we had to learn USC's defense, we had to learn the Tampa Bay defense, so all I watched was USC. I used to tell Coach O., ‘I want to be able to play just like this guy right here, Lofa.' He's like, ‘Are you kidding me?' He's like, ‘You're an athletic guy; you can be better than that.'

The one thing he said, the one thing he told me that really made me open my eyes and go, all right, I need to study every day and learn as much as I can, he said, between you and him, he said, ‘You're a lot more athletic than he is, but he has a whole lot of knowledge of the game.' And when he told me that, I was like, knowledge of the game, I want that, too, if that's what it's going to take to be able to play like that guy. That's kind of how I went into my junior year and also into my senior year.

What will the NFL team that drafts Patrick Willis be getting?

Patrick Willis: I think that they're getting a loyal guy, a loyal player, a humble player, a confident player, a playmaker. I think they're getting the best linebacker to come into this draft this year. I'm willing to give them everything I've got. I may not be 100 percent because that's kind of always been something hanging over my head, is injuries and this and that. Like I tell myself all the time, I may not be 100 percent all the time, but if I'm 80 percent, I'm going to give 100 percent of the 80 percent that I've got. You're not going to see, well, I've got a little ache here. I want to be out there and that's what I'm going to do.

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