49ers rookie LB not phased by high-profile NFL debut

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The prime-time lights and cameras would render most rookies star-struck. The Arizona Cardinals' enviable offensive talent could be intimidating to any young linebacker.

Yet Patrick Willis claims it'll just be another day at the office when the 49ers' first-round pick makes his NFL debut Monday night against Arizona.

"The preseason games were just as important to me as the game that's coming up," Willis said Friday. "Every day is a workday for me. ... That's still three days away. I can't be thinking about Monday."

In another rookie's mouth, such words might seem to be mere posturing, or perhaps a subconscious mental trick to relieve a little pressure. But Willis hasn't struck many people in California as disingenuous, what with his yes-sir-no-sir speech patterns and a relentless work ethic.

And Willis' development has been a no-nonsense process as well. The 11th overall pick out of Mississippi claimed a starting spot just two games into the preseason from Brandon Moore, the 49ers' leading tackler last season.

He's already calling the defensive signals in certain situations as one of five new starters on a San Francisco defense that struggled mightily last season. His teammates think he'll soon live up to the No. 52 on his jersey in honor of Baltimore's Ray Lewis, one of his heroes.

"(Willis) is going to show what kind of a player he is," defensive end Bryant Young said. "He's been working hard to learn this defense along with the rest of us, and you can see he wants to be a great player in this league. He's got a lot of the qualities you look for in a teammate."

Willis was active as usual during the 49ers' workout Friday, repeatedly causing trouble for the scout team with pass deflections and smart movement. The linebacker's speed distinguished him to the 49ers' coaching staff when Mike Nolan and his assistants worked with him at the Senior Bowl.

Willis knows he'll need all that speed against Matt Leinart, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Edgerrin James when the Cardinals visit on Monday night. Willis has watched plenty of film on Leinart, and he already speaks of the 49ers' defensive plan like a veteran.

"He's going to be a great quarterback someday, but right now he's on his way," said Willis, last season's Butkus Award winner as the nation's top collegiate linebacker. "Sometimes if you put pressure on a young quarterback, you can kind of rattle him a little bit, so that's what we're trying to do."

The 49ers expect Willis to be the eventual replacement for Derek Smith, their longtime middle linebacker who has been one of the NFL's most prolific tacklers in the last decade. But Willis cracked the starting lineup when Nolan saw too many missed tackles by Moore, last season's leading tackler.

Nolan didn't flinch in putting early pressure on his prize linebacker, and the coach inserted fellow first-round pick Joe Staley into the starting lineup at right tackle just one preseason game later.

"If a young guy is the best guy at the position, that's the one we're going to play," Nolan said. "Patrick earned the right to be in there with the way he prepares and the way he played in the preseason. He's making a lot of progress toward being the player we expect him to be."

Though he still hasn't made an official NFL tackle, Willis claims to be completely unruffled by his looming debut - though he said it means a bit more to his guardians, Chris and Julie Finley, who will travel from Tennessee to Candlestick Park for the game.

"It's going to be fun," he said. "That's just the way I approach life. I just take it one day at a time."

Notes: The 49ers upgraded backup CB Donald Strickland from questionable to probable. Strickland bruised his chest during the preseason, but participated in the 49ers' entire practice Friday. ... Rookie S Dashon Goldson is the only other player on the club's injury report. He's out with an elbow injury.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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