New Texas Tech defensive coordinator James Willis doesn’t promise many changes from what the Red Raiders did last season.
The Red Raiders’ defense was a surprising strength last season, emerging from the shadows of Mike Leach’s offensive reputation to become a force in its own right. Tech’s defense ranked fourth nationally in sacks, 40th in turnovers produced and 41st in scoring defense in a 9-4 season.
“This defense was very good last year,” Willis said. “Some people may look at their record and kind of change things around, but these guys competed well.”
Willis, who arrives at Tech after one season serving as Alabama’s associate head coach and outside linebackers coach, was convinced of that success after studying film of the Red Raiders’ season after his arrival. The chance to work with his former coaching mentor Tommy Tuberville only made him more excited about the opportunity.
“I turned on the game film and watched them play against Texas and some other schools. They compete now. They get after you,” Willis said. “They’re hard-nosed, blue collar, and that’s what we’ll continue to be. We’ll be aggressive, fly around and get to the ball, that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
With the Big 12’s pass-heavy reputation, Willis promised an aggressive blitzing defense that will attack rival offenses.
“This conference is known for throwing the ball,” Willis said. “You turn on the film and you see a lot of points being scored and the defenses really trying to get after the team and slow them down some. We’ll do the same thing. We’re going to be aggressive, that’s what we do. That’s going to be our motto.”
Willis will face a difficult challenge with his players as he replaces the popular Ruffin McNeill, who helped transform the Red Raiders’ defense over the last 2 ½ seasons.
But Willis arrives at Tech with the reputation as one of the fastest rising defensive coaches in college football after his work at Alabama on Kirby Smart’s defensive staff.
“It was very hard to leave that place; it truly was, because I had a great time there,” Willis said. “Everybody talks about the bowl game and victory, but to me it wasn’t so much the victory and getting to the championship, it was the process and the road getting there.”
His association with Alabama coach Nick Saban prepared him for his chance as a coordinator, where he learned the building blocks of developing a strong program.
“I think my time with coach Saban and what I learned was, of course, the formula. I will try to do the same thing here and run the same type of program and the same attitude,” Willis said. “So, I’m excited to come here and for the opportunity and I think we have a chance to be pretty good.”
Before working at Alabama, Willis was a linebackers coach under Will Muschamp for two seasons in 2006-07 at his alma mater of Auburn on a staff where Tuberville was the head coach. After Muschamp left for the Texas job, Willis remained on the Tigers’ staff that was coordinated by current Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads the following season.
That familiarity and his relationship with Tuberville was what convinced him to come to Texas Tech.
“It’s huge because coach Tuberville and I go back a long way,” Willis said. “I started my coaching career under him as a graduate assistant. I spent about three years under him in that capacity. I wanted to be an assistant coach.”
Willis played college football at Auburn. He was drafted in the fifth round by Green Bay in the 1993 draft and also played for Philadelphia, Seattle and the Birmingham Thunderbolts of the defunct XFL.
After that league disbanded, Willis returned to Alabama to work on his degree. He began his work at Auburn as a student assistant in 2001 and became a graduate assistant two years later under Gene Chizik. He also had one-year stints with Rhode Island and Temple.
“I wanted to be an assistant coach and he sent me out to spread my wings a little bit and learn a little bit,” Willis said. “I coached at a few different spots before I came back to him when he hired me. He really let me grow as a coach, and that’s one thing about him, like players, he gives you the opportunity to grow. I’m grateful for that.”