Willis hungry to improve on first six seasons

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Willis hungry to improve on first six seasons
June 14, 2013, 9:00 am
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Early in his career, Patrick Willis was the team's best defensive player, but he seemed uncomfortable in a role of leadership. (AP)

SANTA CLARA -- Shortly before middle linebacker Patrick Willis walked off the 49ers' practice field Thursday as one of 31 players with perfect attendance in the offseason program, he spoke to the entire team.

Willis' role as a leader is not at all forced. Early in his career, Willis was the team's best defensive player, but he seemed uncomfortable in a role of leadership.

For a couple years now, Willis has spoken to the team on the field prior to games. It seems that Willis has more to say. He clearly relishes accepting more responsibility on and off the field.

There might not be a whole lot of room for Willis to improve. After all, he has earned trips to the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons. But Willis believes he has improved his game the past nine weeks in the offseason program -- mostly from the shoulders up.

"I'm always hungry to be better than I was the year before," Willis said. "I feel like, for the first time, going into my seventh year now, I really feel like mentally and physically, I'm in the best shape I've been in since I was a rookie."

Willis has a unique blend of strength, speed and tenacity. And, now, he said his focus has been on understanding the game and being one step ahead of the opponent.

"Mentally, I'm in a place I've never been before," he said. "For me, it's been about being out here every day and getting better -- being able to recognize, being about to see things before they happen."

Willis said his physical skills are better than ever. While he might be moving as fast as ever, but he's also thinking quicker. And that means he will not have to move as fast, he said.

"I've also learned this camp, you don't have to move as fast if you're smarter," Willis said. "If you have the knowledge -- if you play smart -- you don't have to move as fast. It almost looks like you're not moving at all, but yet you're making the play. That's where I'm trying to get to in my career.

"I still feel amazing. I'm ready."