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October 28, 2005

Willis, All-American?

An interesting question is what does it take for a player to gain the recognition he deserves when it comes to post season honors.

I have a theory. It's a band wagon theory. A player or coach is labeled as outstanding after a good game here or there - perhaps for a good season - and media and fans jump on the band wagon. It takes a long time for most fans and media - perhaps even coaches - to realize or acknowledge they were wrong or that circumstances change.

I watched Tennessee's Jesse Mahelona last season. He was unstoppable in the games I saw. Preseason publications prominently mentioned Mahelona as an All-American candidate. Against Ole Miss this season, he had only one tackle. Any defensive lineman who had only one tackle against a struggling and rebuilding Rebel offensive line doesn't deserve any post season honors. This season, he has only nine solo tackles and eight assists in six games, furthering the case that Mahelona is not all-star material.

But don't be surprised if Mahelona's name pops up on some post season all-star lists based on his reputation - not on his performance this season. It's the nature of how those lists are compiled.

While players like Mahelona benefit from whatever the method is by which all-star lists are compiled, some pretty good players are overlooked.

One player that stands a great chance of being overlooked this season is Ole Miss' Patrick Willis, whose statistics and team contributions should make him an All-American candidate.

Look over the preseason magazines and Willis' name isn't among the top players in the Southeastern Conference, much less the best players in America.

Such has been the identity struggle for Willis, who hasn't had his name mentioned in the same breath with the Butkus Award much less have his name appear when a committee announced the ten finalists earlier this month. The ten finalists were Iowa's Chad Greenway, Texas' Aaron Harris, UCLA's Spencer Havner, Ohio State's A.J. Hawk, Maryland's D'Qwell Jackson, Northwestern's Tim McGarigle, Florida State's Ernie Sims and A.J. Nicholson, Penn State's Paul Posluszny, and Alabama's DeMeco Ryans.

Of those ten, how many have more tackles than Willis?

Exactly two - Jackson and Greenway, who are ranked one and two in the nation in total tackles, respectively. Both lead Willis by an average of about one tackle per game according to statistics on the official NCAA web site.

In solo tackles, Willis leads them all with an average of 9.17 per game, almost a full solo tackle ahead of Greenway. The next closest Butkus finalist candidate in solo tackles is McGarigle at 6.57 solo stops per contest.

In the Rebels' season opener against Memphis, Ole Miss alumnus and ESPN play-by-play announcer Ron Franklin said that Willis was the best linebacker that fans haven't heard of.

Franklin was right, as Willis recorded 15 total tackles, including two for a loss, and forced a fumble in the Rebel win.

Of course Ole Miss fans have known about Willis for three seasons. A bone jarring tackle his true freshman season against Alabama early in the game set the tone for the Rebels' dismantling of the Tide that year in Oxford. Devote Rebel fans knew then there was something special about the player from Bruceton, Tenn. Willis, who was rated a two-star prospect by Rivals.com in 2003, received scholarship offers only from Ole Miss, Memphis and Middle Tennessee even after being named Class A Mr. Football in Tennessee.

Despite his obvious superior talent in his freshman season in 2003, Willis didn't draw a single start under David Cutcliffe in a program that seemed to widely reward seniors regardless of their abilities. That continued in his sophomore season last year under Cutcliffe.

Willis notched 70 tackles including 11 tackles for a loss last season and five sacks while playing in 10 games despite not drawing a single start. He had 13 tackles against Arkansas and 12 tackles against LSU but still didn't start in the season finale against Mississippi State as lesser talented seniors Rob Robertson and Brian Lester drew starting assignments.

Under Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron, Willis has thrived and budded into a star that may not be attracting the attention of the Butkus Award organization, but is bringing in NFL scouts to Oxford.

Willis' season did, however, take a set back in September, which makes his statistics even more impressive.

After the standout performance against Memphis, Willis went down with a broken finger and sprained knee early in the game against Vanderbilt and then missed the Wyoming game the next week.

It's no coincidence that Ole Miss struggled with Willis out. Against Vanderbilt and Wyoming - both losses - the defense gave up almost 900 yards of offense. Since Willis' return, the Rebels have rebounded and surged to have the No. 23 ranked defense in the nation.

Since his return against Tennessee, Willis is playing with a "club" (his cast wrapped in bubble wrap), leaving him with one good arm, and also supporting a knee brace. Still, Willis had 14 total stops, including two behind the line of scrimmage against Tennessee. And against Alabama, he had his best game, coming up with 15 tackles, 2 for a loss of which 1 were sacks, and one pass breakup.

"He is one of the best linebackers in the country, especially playing with what we call 'the club.' " Orgeron said, referring to the wrap covering Willis' broken finger.

So far, the main recognition that Willis has received comes from a mid-season report by collegefootballnews.com, who named Willis an All-American and rates him the 26th-best player in the nation. He was also named a preseason all-SEC selection by one publication but was passed over on other media and coaches' lists.

If Willis is not garnering the attention of media, he is making up for it by turning the heads of opposing coaches.

"We had a lot of respect for him going in, but we multiply that by 10 now," Alabama head coach Mike Shula said. "Their scheme frees him up. A lot of time, you can get a guy in position to make plays and they struggle to make them. It seems like he makes every one."

His performance against Tennessee left head coach Phillip Fulmer lamenting: "He's a guy we shouldn't have let get out of the state."

Still, Willis could be passed over for post season honors largely because Ole Miss is struggling to get around .500 level and become bowl eligible. Willis' performance against Memphis and Alabama on national broadcasts should have increased his name recognition but evidently the Butkus Award committee wasn't tuned into those broadcasts.

What Willis needs now is a performance that will cause coaches, media and fans to get on the band wagon. When that will come is anyone's guess as Ole Miss has only four games remaining and is running out of opportunities for another national broadcast.

If Willis doesn't get the recognition he deserves, an All-American caliber player will be passed over. It's happened before, and will surely happen again. Willis certainly deserves better.

Copyright Ole Miss Sports News. Material may not be re-published without approval of the author. This commentary does not reflect the opinion of Rivals.com or The Rebel Grove. Rebel Ramblings appears weekly from August through February and periodically thereafter.

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