Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Everybody's All-American, Part II

December marks the beginning of the "awards season" in college football, something to fill the time between the end of the regular season and the BCS championship in January. At one time, the list of post-season awards seemingly began (and ended) with the Heisman Trophy, which supposedly recognizes the best player in the collegiate ranks. If you want to start an argument, discuss the "fairness" of Heisman voting with any SEC fan; most will swear up and down that there's a bias against players from the south in general, and the Southeastern Conference in particular.

Claims of bias aside, interest in the Heisman (and corporate sponsorship) has led to the creation of other awards, honoring other positions and players. And that's probably a good thing, since Heisman balloting has long favored quarterbacks and running backs, with the occasional receiver or defensive back thrown in. The notion of handing out awards for other positions was long overdue, even if you can't remember who won the Rimington three years ago, or name the candidates for this year's Groza.

A lot of hardware will be handed out this Thursday night, during ESPN's annual college football awards program. I probably won't watch the entire show, but I will tune in for presentation of the Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker. The three finalists for this year's Butkus are Ohio State's James Laurinaitis, Penn State's Paul Posluszny, and Patrick Willis of the University of Mississippi.

Only a sophomore, Laurinaitis won the Nagurski Trophy on Monday night in Charlotte, given annually to the nation's top defensive player. Laurinaitis finished the season with 100 tackles, four sacks and five interceptions for the top-rated Buckeyes. By winning the Nagurski (and playing for the nation's #1 team), Laurinaitis is probably the favorite for the Butkus. Posluszny, a senior, won the Butkus trophy last year and was the 2005 recipient of the Bednarik Award, which also recognizes the nation's top defensive player. Given his pedigree from "Linebacker U," it would not be surprising to see him win the Butkus for a second time.

Both Laurinaitis and Posluszny are outstanding players, but I believe this year's Butkus should go to Patrick Willis, the senior linebacker from Ole Miss. We wrote about Willis back in August, describing the tremendous obstacles that he has faced in becoming a football star. Born into a poor family in Bruceton, Tennessee, Willis faced harship early. His mother battled substance abuse problems and eventually abandoned her family before Patrick entered high school. When his father proved unable to provide for the children, Willis and his three siblings were placed in foster care during his senior year in high school. Despite that, he established himself as a dominant player, winning the Class A "Mr. Football" award for the state of Tennessee.

Playing for a small high school, Willis attracted little attention from college scouts. Ole Miss was the only SEC school that wanted to sign him; the only other scholarship offers came from Middle Tennessee and the University of Memphis. At Ole Miss, Willis quickly showed the promise of things to come; in a nationally-televised game against Alabama, the freshman linebacker, playing on special teams, delivered a stunning hit that crushed the Crimson Tide's kick returner. Ole Miss went on to win the game, one of its few victories over Alabama in recent years.

Despite his obvious potential, Willis didn't become a star until Ed Orgeron, the former Southern Cal defensive line guru, became the Rebels head coach in 2005. Orgeron decided to turn Willis loose, and he responded with a remarkable junior season, finishing with 128 total tackles (90 solo), in the best football conference in America. Making those numbers more impressive were the injuries Willis played through; at various points in the 2005 season, he had a broken middle finger on his right hand, a sprained right knee, an injured foot, and a partial shoulder separation. Leading the SEC in tackles--with those injuries--at a position that demands strength, speed and mobility--is a testament to the kind of football player Patrick Willis is.

But his most daunting challenge came earlier this year, prior to the start of the 2006 season. Just weeks before the season opener against Memphis, Willis' younger brother drowned in a tragic swimming accident. Willis drove home to Tennessee, buried his brother, and tried to refocus on the season that lay ahead.

After so many setbacks and disappointments in a young life, it would have been understandable if Patrick Willis elected to cruise through his senior year, trying to avoid injuries that might cost him an NFL career. Ole Miss was picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC, and they certainly lived up to those expectations. The Rebels struggled on offense all year, finishing 4-8 and next-to-last in the SEC West. The rebuilding job is continuing in Oxford.

But Patrick Willis has too much determination and heart to simply go through the motions. In the shadow of his brother's death, Willis turned in an even more impressive senior campaign. Once again, he led the SEC in total tackles (137), and was named the conference's Defensive Player of the Year. Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville called him the "best player in the SEC," and Kentucky's Rich Brooks (a former NFL head coach) said that Willis plays linebacker as well as anyone I've ever seen.

Making those achievements even more impressive was Willis's supporting cast, or more correctly, the lack thereof. In a 4-3 scheme, linebackers like Willis rely on their defensive tackles and ends to tie up blockers, allowing them to fill the holes and make the plays. Playing behind an inexperienced (and undersized) defensive line that started a pair of true freshmen, Willis had to make a lot of plays on his own, disrupting runs and passes that were usually oriented away from him.

Despite the pain of personal tragedy--and the frustration of playing on a losing team--Willis simply never gave up. Before the season-ender against Mississippi State, fans noticed the linebacker receiving some pre-game pointers from Orgeron. When the game began, they discovered the reason for the tutorial; on third downs, Willis lined up outside one of his defensive ends, so he could rush the passer more effectively from the edge--an unusual assignment for a middle linebacker. But, thanks to Orgeron's instruction and his linebacker's skills, the tactic managed to confuse the Bulldogs; Willis even recorded a key sack by lining up in his "new" position. It was the kind of effort Ole Miss fans (and his teammates) had grown to expect from Willis.

When the recipient of this year's Butkus Award is announced on Thursday, Patrick Willis's name probably won't be called. But through his courage, determination and perseverance, Patrick Willis is already a winner, both on and off the field.

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