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Texas Tech Coaching Profiles :: Defensive Coordinator, James Willis

James Willis

Title: Defensive Coordinator
Age: 38
Birthplace: Huntsville, AL
Undergraduate Degree: Adult Education, Auburn University
Graduate Degree: N/A

Life Before Coaching: Willis left early from Auburn after the 1992 season, his junior year, drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 5th round in the 1993 NFL Draft. Willis played seven years in the NFL, two season in Green Bay, four season in Philadelphia and a season with Seattle. Willis' best year was 1998 where he had 96 tackles, but doesn't explain why he didn't continue to play, especially because he appeared to have some ability to play. A cup of coffee with the XFL team, Birmingham Thunderbolts, in 2001, Willis went back to Auburn to get degree in Adult Education. Willis was pretty much a star once he arrived on campus at Auburn where he was a Parade All-American, the co-defensive freshman of the year in the SEC and first team All-SEC in 1992, the year that he left to go to the NFL.

Prior Coaching Stops: In 2004, Willis started off his coaching career at Rhode Island as linebackers coach, took the same position in 2005 at Temple. In 2006, Willis went back to his alma mater at Auburn as linebackers coach under then defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp. After Tuberville left Auburn, unceremoniously, Willis was retained by Gene Chizik's staff to continue to coach linebackers for the 2008 season. In 2009, Willis was hired by Alabama head coach Nick Saban to be an associate head coach and linebackers coach for the Crimson Tide, and if you've been in a closet since January, the Tide won the national championship.

Arrival at Texas Tech: When Willis was hired at Texas Tech, he said that last year's defense was pretty good and talked about his humble coaching beginnings:

"You don’t have all the resources and the support that you would have in the south, or out west, or in Texas,’’ he said. "I was out there striping the football field, setting up the field before the game. It was a great experience. I really suggest anybody that wants to be a coach should go there first for the experience. Definitely, it was worth it."

For most of the spring, Willis has maintained that he wants an attacking style of defense, with corners that press and creating pressure from a handful of positions. Perhaps Willis' biggest hurdle this spring was convincing the defensive players that they're special too:

"I think we’ve been, in the past, kind of thinking we were second-rate citizens or something like that,’’ he said. "But I think now they understand that on defense we’re special, too. We’re part of this team, and we’re very important to this team. We became more aggressive and more physical.’’

Both Willis and Tuberville have maintained through most of the spring that the key to the defense is speed. Willis maintains that although the defense made strides this spring, it's still not where he wants it overall:

Willis rates his defense’s speed, on a scale of one to 10, "probably about a six.’’

The good news is, yes, he thinks that can go up, even with the same personnel, in a matter of months. How?

"Things we do in the weight room, our approach to playing,’’ he said. "There’s a difference between running a 4.4 40 and having football speed. You may have a guy who runs a 4.6, but on the football field he runs a 4.4. That all comes with understanding the game.

"Once you get guys understanding the game, understanding their job and their position, they play much faster. That’s our total focus is get guys playing fast."

Meanwhile, the players have adjusted to Willis' more vocal stylings, where he likely to let the players know everything they are doing, whether it be right, wrong or otherwise:

"Coach Ruff yelled a lot,’’ Bird said, "but he was more the guy that only yelled when something bad happened. Coach Willis is yelling the entire time. Not necessarily that everything is bad. I think it’s just his way of being a part of it and help lead us.

"I think it’s good. I think everybody responds to him very well."

2010 Prognostication:  I have high hopes for Wills, but there's a good chance that I'm being a bit optimistic.  The things I like about Willis are highlighted above.  Willis is vocal and energetic and considering he played the game, not only on a very high collegiate level, but also on the professional level, gives cause to think that he understands the game.  Willis has had the opportunity to learn from two of the best defensive minds in college football as Tuberville, Saban and Muschamp have had more than their fair share of defensive success.  The question that we may not have answered is who is actually coordinator the defense?

Tuberville may be a very hands-on coach when it comes to the defense, and although Willis may hold the title of defensive coordinator, I doubt that Tuberville won't have input. 

I know that there are some high expectations when it comes to the defense, but personally, my expectations are tempered a bit.  I write this because if Willis is being truthful about where he wants the speed of the defense to be, then there's no way that this year, the defense will be able to make a dramatic improvement considering that this team has essentially the same players, sans the three best pass rushers on the team.  I'm typically optimistic about these sorts of things, but I think it's important to remain realistic in terms of expectations.  Granted, McNeill was able to replace defensive ends in Brandon Williams, Brandon Sesay and McKinner Dixon with guys like Brandon Sharpe, Daniel Howard and Rajon Henley, however, I think the biggest difference here is that Willis could be forced to replace those latter three players with relatively young (redshirt freshmen) players who are, for the most part, unproven.  Of course, all of this changes if players like Scott Smith, Donald Langley and Lawrence Rumph can play some at that defensive end position.

This or course addresses only one position and personally, I'm not looking for a cure-all from Willis in his first year.  I'm expecting improvement, but bringing an SEC style of defense takes time.