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Auburn debuts memorable for former Johnson star

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Auburn debuts memorable for former Johnson star

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Times Sports Staff pmarsh9485@msn.com

Willis eager for first game as coach of Tigers' linebackers

AUBURN - James Willis can feel it, that familiar churning in his gut that says the time is near.

In 10 days, No. 4 Auburn will play Washington State at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The night will be alive with the surging emotion of the start of a football season loaded with high expectations. For those who have been there, who have tested themselves in the pressure-cooker that is a college football Saturday, it is a unique feeling.

It was on Sept. 8, 1990, that Willis, a freshman just three months removed from Johnson High School, really knew what it was about. He knew when he went to the stadium for his first game as an Auburn linebacker. It didn't matter that the opponent was Cal State-Fullerton.

"I can remember walking into that stadium for the first time and how it felt," said Willis, Auburn's first-year linebackers coach. "That stays with you. You never forget it."

Through three Auburn seasons and seven seasons in the NFL, that feeling never got old.

"That's why we do what we do," Willis said. "It's that excitement, that rush, feeling the pressure. It's that way for coaches and for players."

Not long after Willis returned to Auburn as a student assistant, earning his degree in 2003, he knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to have that feeling again as a member of Auburn's coaching staff. He'll cherish the moment on the night of Sept. 2.

Willis says it will be memorable, not just for him but for his family.

"It's huge," Willis said. "We've talked about it all the time. It's a dream come true and an opportunity I'm blessed to have. But it's not about me. It's about the players."

When Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville offered Willis a job in February, there was little question what he would do. He joined the Auburn staff on Feb. 6.

Willis knew he would face challenges. He would have to learn the defense of first-year coordinator Will Muschamp. He would have to earn the trust and respect of his players. But he couldn't have imagined just how big that challenge would become.

In July, Tuberville indefinitely suspended senior Kevin Sears and redshirt freshman Tray Blackmon, both potential starters. Steve Gandy moved from safety and quickly climbed to the first team at outside linebacker. He is sidelined for at least several more weeks after suffering complications from a deep thigh bruise.

Behind senior Karibi Dede, sophomore Merrill Johnson and senior Will Herring, a converted safety, there is precious little experience in the linebacker corps. True freshman Craig Stevens could be in the rotation on opening night.

There have been times, Willis says, that he had to fight off mounting frustration.

"Oh, yeah. Definitely," Willis said. "But these guys have done a great job recruiting. We still have some players that can make things happen. I think we'll be OK. The silver lining in this whole deal is the younger guys have gotten some reps and you can find out early what you may have."

Willis' refusal to whine, his determination to turn a disappointment into a celebration, has earned respect from his players and his fellow coaches.

"It's been an honor to play for Coach Willis," Herring said. "He has a way of making it fun and competitive out there. It's not like showing up for a job. He's a great motivator."

Willis and Muschamp have navigated some trying times together, and Muschamp has been impressed.

"The players look up to him because of the kind of person he is," Muschamp said. "They look up to him because he was an Auburn football player, outstanding player that he was, and his history of playing in the NFL

"I appreciate his experience. He's done a phenomenal job."

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