The 49ers threw a draft-day party at the Santa Clara Convention Center Saturday and it was hopping when Mike Nolan showed up to talk about the team’s first-round pick, linebacker Patrick Willis.
Nolan said Willis, the SEC’s defensive player of the year, will have an immediate impact in the team’s third-down package where he’ll line up next to fellow linebacker Manny Lawson and safety Michael Lewis. He’ll also get to compete for one of the team’s starting inside linebacker jobs against incumbent Derek Smith and back-up Jeff Ulbrich.
Both Smith and Ulbrich are long-time favorites of the coaching staff but have been slowed by injuries in recent seasons. If Willis wins a starting role, he likely would join Brandon Moore, Tully Banta-Cain and Lawson in the starting lineup.
Willis played in 4-3 defense at Mississippi but on a conference call said he was eager to learn his new role.
"I’m the type of player who’s confident he can learn different defenses," he said. "Just teach me how."
At the convention center party, someone in the crowd yelled out the name of Ray Lewis, whom Nolan coached in Baltimore. Nolan said that Willis and Lewis were different physically – Willis is smaller and faster – but said he hoped he would make a similar impact.
Said Nolan: "If three years from now we’re comparing him to Ray, that’s a good thing; that’s a great thing."
-- Matt Barrows