Willis top first-year defender

SANTA CLARA -- Patrick Willis woke Friday to find that a winter storm had knocked out the power in his building. The only hint something was afoot was the 11 instant messages and 13 voicemails waiting for him on his cell phone.

They all said the same thing: Congrats on your award! According to The Associated Press, the 49ers' linebacker grabbed 48 of the 50 votes to win the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Carolina linebacker Jon Beason had the other two votes.

Willis probably should have known the honor was coming.

The 49ers picked Willis 11th overall in the 2007 NFL draft out of Mississippi, and he has been a tackling dynamo since taking over the "Mike" linebacker spot during the exhibition season. In the 49ers' scheme, defensive linemen are supposed to occupy blockers while speedy linebackers like Willis swoop in for the tackle.

The plan worked as designed this season with Willis finishing with a league-leading 174 stops, according to league statistics, 33 more than Denver linebacker D.J. Williams and 34 more than Beason.

"I can't give enough credit to my teammates, especially a defensive line that was unbelievable this year," said Willis, who will represent the 49ers as a member of the NFC team in the Pro Bowl next month.

First-year players often hit a so-called rookie wall near midseason, but Willis kept hitting ball carriers. He seemed to grow stronger as the year wore on, despite breaking a bone in his hand Nov. 4 against Atlanta.

In a Nov. 25 defeat of Arizona, Willis made perhaps his most memorable play of the year when he ran down Cardinals receiver Sean Morey from behind to prevent a touchdown in overtime. He finished with 18 tackles that day and followed the next week with another 18-tackle game against Carolina.

Dec. 9 brought a match-up between Willis and Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, who was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year earlier this week. Peterson went into that game as the league's leading rusher, but the 49ers held him to just three rushing yards, by far his lowest total of the season.

Willis had eight tackles that day, including a memorable meeting with Peterson at the line of scrimmage that ended with the Vikings running back sprawling backward.

Willis said he credited veterans such as Derek Smith, Jeff Ulbrich and Bryant Young for teaching him how to eat right and care for his body throughout the season.

"One thing they told me was, 'Young buck, make sure you get your rest,' " Willis said.

Willis noted that Young also was named the league's top defensive rookie in 1994 and said he hoped to model his career after the veteran lineman's.

It seemed fitting that on Dec. 23, the day Young played his final game in front of the home crowd, Willis enjoyed his best game of the season, a season-high 20-tackle performance against Tampa Bay in which he also recorded two sacks.

Said Willis of Young: "I see what he's become ... and I just hope I can have half the career he has had."