SANTA CLARA, CALIF. (AP) - They’ve asked All-Pro Patrick Willis to blitz, and he is all for it.
Even as a kid with big football dreams, Willis realized being one-dimensional would not take him very far on the field. He still works each day, now as a fifth-year pro and already an elite NFL linebacker, to reinvent himself and improve his game.
Willis, who maintains the proper manners of his Southern upbringing _ “Yes, ma’am,” “Yes, sir,” he says with a smile _ is clearly having fun doing it in San Francisco’s new system, too.
“I always felt to be the best, whether as a kid and you were playing around, or whether it’s playing against other opponents during school, you had to be a complete guy,” Willis said Wednesday as the 49ers geared up for Saturday night’s home exhibition game with Houston.
“I feel that way. I feel that every day is an opportunity for me to go out there and work on things I’m not so good on, and the things I do do well, just polish them and make them even better.”
He does a lot of things very well.
During practice last week, Willis made a pretty pick on a throw by rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Willis returned the interception all the way, gleefully yelling, “Hey, touchdown!” as he scurried into the end zone.
He has been as active as ever in first-year coach Jim Harbaugh’s spirited training camp, and new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio likes what he sees. Harbaugh and Fangio believe Willis can evolve into a reliable pass-rusher for the rebuilding 49ers.
“Patrick Willis has been outstanding,” Harbaugh said. “As a playmaker, it’s like any position, you want to get better at every facet of your game, and his tempo and the timing of the blitz and the instincts of it. He could be great at it, and I think that’s what Coach Fangio sees. We all see that. Just perfecting all those techniques and details is what Patrick’s working on.”
He had a team-leading 128 tackles with six sacks and two forced fumbles last season. Willis, who developed into a dynamic defensive playmaker under fired coach and Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, has led the 49ers in tackles in each of his NFL seasons since San Francisco selected him with the 11th overall pick in 2007 out of Mississippi.
“I want to continue to build what we have now and make it even stronger,” Willis said.
The 49ers rewarded Willis last year for the player he already has been in a young career.
In May 2010, Willis received a $50 million, five-year contract extension that takes him through the 2016 season and includes $29 million in guaranteed money. He earns $10 million per season.
For Willis and many others on the Niners, this marks yet another new start under another new regime. Not to mention another season of high hopes after the disappointment of a 6-10 finish last year, when San Francisco fully expected to win the NFC West and return to the playoffs but instead started 0-5. This team hasn’t been to the postseason or had a winning record since 2002.
There’s a fresh vibe around the 49ers in 2011 with Harbaugh leading the way.
“Coach Fangio, I like the defense that he has in place for us. Opportunity awaits us all from every position,” Willis said. “When opportunity comes you have to capitalize. That’s what I’m thinking. I’m not going in saying, ‘Coach, I want to rush, I want to rush.’ But if he calls my number then I want to be able to get the job done in any aspect. That’s my focus. When my number’s called I’ve got to make it count.”
In the final week last season, Willis underwent a second surgical procedure for a broken right hand and missed a start and game for the first time in his career. That after he played two games with a bulky cast on his hurt hand.
Voted to his fourth Pro Bowl in as many seasons, Willis sat out football’s all-star game injured for the second year in a row.
Willis said being sidelined helped him mature. He knew sitting out one game was in his best interest and the team’s for the long term.
Now, he is eager to do whatever he can to aid in a turnaround for this once-proud franchise.
“Yes, he has made some improvement in his rush abilities, still not where he wants to be, nor I’d like to see him at, but the one thing about Patrick, when he’s got something in his mind, he goes very hard to try and improve it, both mentally and physically,” Fangio said. “He has the ability to improve in that area greatly and I trust that he will just because of who he is.”
The 49ers open the season Sept. 11 at Candlestick Park against the division rival and reigning NFC West champion Seahawks. Seattle embarrassed San Francisco 31-6 in the 2010 opener.
Willis and Co. remember it all too well.
“With Coach Harbaugh, everything we do is quick tempo. It’s his way of getting our conditioning in but also being fast every play, beating the clock,” Willis said. “Right now, we’re just trying to get our offense in, get our defense in, get our special teams in, build this team. Preseason is preseason. For us it’s about putting in the work now so when Sept. 11 comes, we’re ready.”
Notes: RB Frank Gore, seeking a new long-term contract, heard that general manager Trent Baalke went on the radio and said he hoped the two-time Pro Bowler would be a Niner for life. “I believe him,” Gore told the AP on Wednesday. “I want to be here.” … San Francisco waived TE Colin Cloherty. … RG Chilo Rachal was not in uniform and did not practice _ he just watched.