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April 7, 2013Charlie Weis surprised several reporters at his last press conference when he said Darius Willis was pushing Ben Heeney for the number one inside linebacker.
Last season Heeney led the team in tackles and was fourth in the Big 12. So it was easy to predict Heeney had the starting job locked up. In 2011 Willis recorded 81 tackles and was second on the team in tackles for a loss. But last season he moved to defensive end where he played mainly on the scout team.
Willis said before winter conditioning he found out he was moving back to linebacker.
"I stayed positive and grinded my way through this," Willis said. "Moving from defensive end to linebacker there is always an adjustment. I am still in that adjustment stage. I haven't really played off the line of scrimmage in a while. It's not something I have to get use to again but more getting comfortable."
The competition has been good for both players. The spring battle has made both of them be sharp in practice every day knowing the depth chart could change.
"Darius has really stepped up from last year," Heeney said. "Darius is pushing me and I have been pushing him. He is making me better and I'm sure it is making him better."
Willis is glad to be back in a position where his name is on the depth chart. He got the chance to make the move back to linebacker and trying to make the most of it his senior year.
"Anytime you have an opportunity to compete you have to rise up if you are a good player," he said. "I feel like at this stage you have to have an edge of being the best. Having someone like Ben that works hard at anything he does makes the competition more intense."
The defense will be better with the competition at every position. However, the ongoing competition at middle linebacker wasn't expected. Everyone knew Heeney would be there but nobody was counting on Willis making a push for the starting job. Now he's getting a second chance to prove what he can do.
"Life is going to throw punches at you," Willis said. "It depends how you handle it. Are you going to fall down or get up? You can get up or lay down. It was a battle for myself. I wasn't too much worried about the outside. I wanted to prove to myself that I can play the game like I knew I could.
"It was personal within me. I used it as motivation. I had help from my teammates. They supported me a lot. I wasn't satisfied and I wanted more out myself."
Playing different positions
Willis and Heeney have also played different positions at linebacker. They have switched off between the MIKE and the WILL position.
"Right now Jake Love has been out of a couple practices so it has been me, Darius, and Victor Simmons getting all the reps at MIKE and WILL," Heeney said. "We have had a three man rotation for four practices. But Jake is back so he's good now."
Although the depth took a hit when Love missed the recent practices the positions don't require a lot of new learning.
"They are mirrored positions so whatever you do at MIKE you do the same at WILL essentially," Heeney said. "It is just like you are on the other side. If I am the MIKE for one play and my key takes me to the C gap and the next play I go WILL the same play will take me to the A gap. It isn't a hard transition."