Jeff Ferguson, the 49ers’ head trainer, had a surprise for the media today, and he watched with a mischievous grin as we “unwrapped” it. Patrick Willis, the heart of the San Francisco defense, and by now the team’s most recognizable player, was back on the field during team period for the first time since undergoing surgery to repair a bursa sack in his right knee in March.
Willis has been a staple at voluntary practices this offseason, and has taken part in basic position drills. But he has passively watched the 11-on-11 action from a position 40 yards downfield. Not today.
“There’s nothing like being inside the huddle and actually participate in the practice,” Willis said in the locker room afterward. “It was good just to watch and to get my eyes back right again, but it’s even better to be out there practicing.”
Willis worked in slowly, sharing first-team repetitions with Matt Wilhelm. But his return created a buzz at practice.
Pretty early into team period, RB Frank Gore took a handoff, shot up the middle – and ran right into the arms of Willis. Of course, the linebacker bear-hugged his teammate rather than tackling him.
“I’m happy to see him back, running around,” Gore said. “He makes a big difference.”
The 49ers’ defense has been incomplete all offseason, with standouts like NT Aubrayo Franklin, LB Manny Lawson and CBs Shawntae Spencer and Nate Clements choosing not to participate in voluntary practices. But Willis is different. His mere presence seems to lift the defenders’ intensity, and their performance.
“The checks are right on cue. His communication is as deep as it gets in this defense,” Wilhelm said. “He knows the ins and outs of this defense, and that’s why he’s able to move like he does in this defense. Not saying that we don’t fire on all cylinders when I’m in there, but I think everyone revs it up, and that defense is definitely executed almost perfectly when Patrick is out there.”
Willis doesn’t know precisely how much action he’ll see this week. (The team has OTAs Tuesday and Wednesday, and a three-day minicamp Thursday through Saturday.) But he’ll take all the 49ers allow him.
Ferguson happened to be walking past Willis when the linebacker was asked if he was involved in targeting today as his return date.
“I see Fergie right now looking at me,” Willis said, smiling. “I been like a little gnat is his ear. I been feeling good for a while. But these trainers, they know. They got a knack. Fergie’s one of the best trainers, I believe, in the league. He’s done a great job preparing, getting me back ready. So I’m just gonna listen to him and do what he asks me to do. … But at the same time, I had to bug him a little bit to let me get back out there today.”
The best news: Willis felt great after practice, and sounds utterly ready to resume full-time work when he gets the green light.
“I can’t wait to go in there and watch film (of practice),” he said. “I felt pretty good. My eyes were a little slow at times. For the most part, though, I felt like I still got it a little bit. So now I need to pick up where I left off and get even better.”
Asked if he could put a percentage on his health, Willis said: “Right now I feel great. If we had on pads, I think I’d be able to go out there and play today. So I don’t know. I just know that I feel good, and to me feeling good is a hundred percent.”