WHEN HE took the field for his first NFL workout last summer, the first-rounder out of Mississippi felt as if he were frozen in place. "My eyes got big when the ball was snapped," Willis says, "and it was only a practice." He quickly got over the shock, and now opponents are the ones who are wide-eyed. The 6'1" 242-pounder has a team-leading 50 tackles and consistently displays the athleticism, intelligence and hustle that made him the No. 11 pick—and first linebacker taken—in the April draft.
Assistant coach Mike Singletary, the Hall of Fame linebacker, says Willis can lift his game even higher if he keeps working to improve. "The danger is that he can get by his whole career relying on speed and athleticism," Singletary said before training camp. "But when you look at the other things—the fundamentals and the technique and the focus—[does he] want to be great?"
Three months later Willis is holding up his end. "You can't tell the difference in how hard I go in practice and how hard I go in games," he said. "I feel if I practice well and do things right in practice, the games should be secondary."
Much of his off-the-field time is spent studying video of the next opponent. Some 49ers take the tapes home, but Willis doesn't have a video system at his house. "I never had a lot of money, so when somebody says, 'That computer [system] is $20,000,' I'm like, Whoa!" said Willis, who signed a five-year, $16.7 million contract. "But one of my coaches told me it's one of the best investments you can make. I'm working on getting one. It's coming."