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January 24, 2007

South notes: Willis the man in the middle

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Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis is doing his best to impress at the Senior Bowl.

The Butkus Award winner is calling the signals for the South defense and has turned scouts' heads with his speed and desire. He even made an interception during an 11-on-11 drill.

"I think it's important to come out and do what the coaches ask to the best of my ability," Willis said. "It's great to have NFL coaches watching you and helping you out."

He's learning from one of the best here, Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary. The former Chicago Bears standout is an assistant head coach/linebackers coach for the San Francisco 49ers, who are in charge of the South team. Willis said he had studied up on Singletary's career with the Bears in case he was asked what he knew about his position coach.

Willis, who also mans the middle, said he felt like playing the position had helped him learn defenses quickly.

"When I've been interviewing with teams, they're asking a lot of football questions, which I like," Willis said. "It's good for me because being a 'Mike' I already know where everybody is supposed to be. I feel prepared when they've asked stuff like 'If an offense is in this scheme, what would you run against it?' "

Niners head coach Mike Nolan has had high praise for Willis as well. Nolan and his staff had the South squad last year, when a certain Alabama linebacker who went on to be named NFL defensive rookie of the year for the Houston Texans caught his eye.

"He (Demeco Ryans) didn't make the initial impression on me as much as Willis has already," Nolan said. "That doesn't make him a better player or worse. It's just that initially Willis has caught my eye a good bit in the little that we've been practicing these two days."

Willis, who's listed at 6-2, 230, was third nationally in solo tackles. Ryans, whom the Texans have at 6-2, 236, led the NFL in solo tackles this season.

Willis said he believes coaches know he can tackle well and deliver hits, so he's working on some other things.

"I'm learning more how to play off offensive linemen, how to handle them better," Willis said. "The coaches really want you to get into them and use your hands more. Run at them, connect, and get rid of them. Use your hands and shoot them off."

Willis has signed with Ben Dogra of CAA. Dogra is one of the NFL's top agents. He represented four first-round picks a year ago, including No. 1 overall Mario Williams.

LSU receiver Dwayne Bowe has been one of the standouts in South practices this week. That doesn't just come from scouts, but from one of his new quarterbacks.

"I'm partial to my guy, Johnnie Lee Higgins, but other than him I think the most impressive receiver is Dwayne Bowe," said UTEP quarterback Jordan Palmer, younger brother of Cincinnati Bengals signal-caller Carson Palmer. "He's got the size and speed, and he's intense."

Bowe has earned praise several times during practices for his route running, something he said he has been working on this week. He has looked sharp making his cuts, and he made what one of the 49ers assistants called a "big-league play" on a curl route.

"It's all about being consistent catching balls," Bowe said. "And I'm trying to make big plays when they need me.

"I've been working on routes and knowing the offense. One big difference here is getting used to the tempo of an NFL practice."

As far as the talent level, Bowe already has seen a lot of the guys who are here. It's called the SEC.

"Everybody here is an all-star and you have to be ready to compete. I'm just working hard. I hope when it's all over I can sit back and say I did a good job."

Several high-profile underclassmen were at the practices Wednesday, including Florida safety Reggie Nelson, Notre Dame running back Darius Walker, Miami tight end Greg Olsen and Florida State linebacker Lawrence Timmons.

"I was working out in Atlanta and just wanted to come out and support my teammates, get a feel for everything, meet some coaches," Nelson said. "My agent told me it would be a good idea.

"I met with a lot of teams. Everything is going well. I've just got to stay focused, keep my mind on the things I have to do to get ready for the combine."

Nelson has three teammates here from the national champion Gators: quarterback Chris Leak, wide receiver Dallas Baker and defensive end Ray McDonald.

Nelson expressed high hopes for all of them, especially defensive mate McDonald - who has performed well thus far.

"Big Ray, he's my man," Nelson said. "It's a blessing for him to be in the position he's in. He's torn both of his ACLs. Most people would have given up after one. He keeps working hard and I admire him."

So which Gator will be drafted first, Reggie?

"Aww, man, I don't know. I can't get into that."

The star-studded list of coaches in Mobile this week has included one notable former coach.

Former Miami coach Larry Coker has attended Senior Bowl practices each of the last two days. In an indication he has no hard feelings toward the school that fired him, Coker even wore a University of Miami hat both days.

Coker expects Miami to bounce back quickly from last year's 7-6 finish that resulted in his dismissal.

"We lost four games by a touchdown or less," Coker said. "They'll be very good. They won't be down long."

Coker indicated he wants to continue coaching in some capacity.

"I plan on doing that," Coker said. "I don't know where. Hopefully I'll get the right opportunity."

Nolan said Wednesday's practice was the last in pads. His team will be in helmets tomorrow. "This will be more of a mental practice, trying to perfect a few things," Nolan said. A few notable SEC coaches were present at Wednesday's practices. Spotted were Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville and offensive coordinator Al Borges, and LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. Because of a dearth of offensive tackles, Central Michigan's Joe Staley finds himself on the South team. "When I got here I thought there was something wrong with my packet," the Michigan native said. "I said, 'Hey, I'm from Michigan. Shouldn't I be on the North?' " An AFC scout said he hasn't been impressed with the running backs on either team. The Miami Dolphins staff has been among the most visible at all of the practices. The Tennessee Titans also are well represented.

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