Mike Singletary clearly see all the similarities between multi-talented linebackers Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis (Ole Miss) – the passion, the speed, the uncanny ability for making big hits at the most crucial moments of a game.
Yet, the “wide-eyed” Chicago Bears Hall of Fame linebacker also knows a few things that fans miss when they compare Baltimore’s legend and Super Bowl MVP Lewis to Willis, the 49ers linebacker who wants to live it up to the expectations and play at the level of standard just like Ray.
And Singletary certainly believes his newest project can be the next All-Pro playmaker to wear # 52.
“The great thing about Patrick is that he has a chance to get to that place where Ray already is,” Singletary said. “There’s a thing in this game about passing the baton, and I could see that possibly happening. I’m very excited for the possibility. I want to see how (Willis) handles success, and how he handles the comparisons.”
Singletary, the 49ers’ assistant head coach, has mentored both players in his coaching career. He thinks Willis can someday live up to the huge comparisons – perhaps starting with Sunday’s meeting between the two squads at the house that Bill Walsh built.
“I feel so fortunate to get this chance as a coach,” said Singletary, the Ravens’ inside linebackers coach in 2003-04. “It’s so rare that you find someone with all the ability and the character to match it. I feel fortunate I got to coach two of those guys in my career.”
When Singletary first met Willis at the Senior Bowl in January, he didn’t realize he might’ve just found the next big-name, big-game, star at his former position – in fact, he didn’t even know who Willis was at first.
Willis, who won the Butkus Award at Mississippi as the nation’s top linebacker, quickly grabbed Singletary’s eye with his nonstop motor and intelligent questions during practice, though they didn’t have much one-on-one conversation.
“I was excited about his attitude, his personality and his approach to the game,” Singletary said. “It reminded me of (Lewis). I was pleasantly surprised when I went to Baltimore that Ray was so eager to absorb anything that I could tell him.”
When the 49ers had a chance to get Willis with the 11th overall pick in this year’s 2007 NFL Draft, they were all over it like dog on bone – and Willis has exceeded expectations ever since he took a starting job away from leading tackler Brandon Moore in the preseason.
Willis was spectacular in the first month of the regular season, leading the 49ers with 51 tackles and drawing fans’ attention on almost every series. He’s the heart and soul of a fast-paced improving defense that has kept the 49ers (2-2) competitive while their offense continues to struggle.
Willis has been enamored with Lewis’ playing style ever since watching the Ravens’ Super Bowl victory in January 2001. He noted the Baltimore veteran as his favorite NFL player when he was drafted, though he had never attended a Ravens game.
“It will be exciting to see him actually playing in person,” Willis said. “He’ll be right across the way, so I’ll have to keep an eye on what he’s doing when their defense is on the field.”
While San Fran’s fans already have named Willis as the next best LB, Singletary isn’t ready to give his young protege that, just yet. He’ll wait to make that evaluation until Willis has played a full season with the grueling, tough-grinding fatigue and adversity- what every linebacker must overcome to reach true greatness.
“Patrick has great potential, but there’s a difference,” Singletary said. “You’re looking at a guy that has the right to be called a great player, and you’re comparing him to a kid that’s looking forward to being a great player. There’s a difference in that, and I think it’s exciting to watch the transformation.”