SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) - Patrick Willis is in the middle - barking orders and yelling encouragement to the rows and rows of teammates that surround him.
It's just the usual pre-practice stretching ritual at the 49ers' training camp. But even during that seemingly routine drill, the Pro Bowl linebacker is showing why he's rapidly emerged as one of San Francisco's team leaders.
And once practice begins, Willis really is at the center of things. He's a missile of speed and precision as he follows the football from sideline to sideline, flying past would-be blockers to get to the ball carrier.
At 24, Willis is just entering the prime of his career. But the two-time All-Pro already has distinguished himself as a special performer and natural leader who is taking on both roles with passion and purpose.
"I'm not one of the people who says something every play just to hear myself speak," he said Sunday. "When something is not right, I feel it is my duty to speak as one of the captains."
As he prepares for his third NFL season, Willis has been anointed as the team's defensive captain and is clearly a player even his older teammates look up to.
"You try to lead by example, and Patrick is good in that he does everything extremely well, both on the field and off," 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes said.
Spikes, himself a two-time Pro Bowler, joined the 49ers last summer and quickly teamed with Willis to form a productive pair of starting inside linebackers in San Francisco's 3-4 defense.
Willis led the league with 174 tackles in 2007, when he was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and followed that up by finishing second in the NFL with 141 last year.
The 49ers finished No. 13 in the NFL's defensive rankings last season, matching the team's highest finish since 1997. With Willis, the 49ers are aiming to finish in the top 10 in 2009.
"His progression as a linebacker has elevated from his first year to his second and I think it's just going to elevate more," 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said.
Coach Mike Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker during his playing days with the Chicago Bears, appears to be gradually pushing the young linebacker to become one of the team's visible leaders.
"At times last year it didn't seem like the most natural thing for him to be doing," 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said of Willis' new leadership role. "But that's something he's worked on a lot. Now, when he talks it's a lot more natural for him."
EXTRA POINTS: Fullback Moran Norris returned to the team facility Sunday after missing the start of training camp due to personal reasons. He didn't take part in the team's lone afternoon practice session. ... With Parys Haralson out with a hip flexor, Ahmad Brooks practiced with the first-unit defense at right outside linebacker. ... Cornerback Tarell Brown didn't participate in team drills after he injured his toe on Saturday. ... The 49ers, who did not practice Sunday morning, resume two-a-day practice sessions
Monday and won't have another break until Aug. 9.