Winnipeg's Odell Willis is exactly the way we would all like our professional athletes to be.
Tireless and remorseless on the field of play and appreciative and level-headed off it.
The league leader in sacks is part of a Winnipeg defence that three games into the CFL season is making its case as the best unit in the CFL.
Obviously three games in, no one can claim that title, but the Bombers are very much in the conversation.
Willis leads the league in sacks with five. His front four linemate Doug Brown has three and sits alone in third.
The Bombers won just four games a year ago but the lack of success only served to disguise what was a very young defence showing plenty of signs of future dominance.
Willis may be the guy getting most of the attention on the Bombers’ defence but there’s no shortage of standout performances from the front four to the linebackers and back into the secondary.
Brown, the wily veteran of the group with 11 years in the CFL under his belt, says it’s a little premature to be handing out best defence in the league honours just yet, but he saw the potential of this group last year and through three games likes what he sees so far.
“We had a ton of inexperienced guys but a lot of young talent,” Brown said of the Bombers defence a year ago. “I think our management team understood that with the year of maturation and the natural progression you get just from guys getting more experience, they understood what kind of potential was ahead of so many. Through the first three weeks I think we’ve seen a little bit of that realized.”
The defensive scheme in Winnipeg was also altered. According to Willis it was streamlined to better take advantage of the youth that permeates the entire corps.
“It’s just simple,” Willis said. “We run maybe five or six plays at the most and play off our athleticism. It’s no secret about what we’re going to do or how we play the game. It’s just line up and are you going to be better than me? If I beat my man and everyone wins their one-on-one’s we win as a whole.”
Willis isn’t one to complicate the game of football.
“We don’t worry about the sack (totals),” Willis said. “We just want to keep a goose egg on the board. They can go for 500, 600, 700 yards but if they don’t score no points or kick no field goals, I’ll take that any day.”
Willis also scoffs at the notion of requiring motivation to play the game of football. That kind of thing doesn’t even register with him.
“The good Lord gives you a chance to wake up healthy, and alive and then you come out here and you’re blessed enough to do something you love and you get paid for? That’s about all I need. I don’t need to get up for the game. Just talking football motivates me. There’s no big secret. We’re just happy to do what we do.”
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some down times a year ago as anyone would expect in a 4-14 season. And even in those times, Willis found a way to get something positive out of the negative.
“We learned last year just to take care of our own business,” he said speaking specifically for the defence. “We got frustrated trying to do everything and getting mad. This year it’s control what we can control and right now what we’re doing is stopping offences and limiting them to one touchdown a game.”
The Winnipeg offence has held its own this year but a year ago if it wasn’t the offence shooting themselves in the foot then it was the special teams. Willis and company learned trying to make up for those mistakes only compounded the situation and this year have consistently played down-to-down football without worrying about anything that had happened before they took the field.
“We’re certainly starting to forge our identity but it’s still just three games,” cautioned Brown. “Six games in or nine games in then you get a feel for what your are going to be.”
Whereas Brown comes across as perhaps a bit overly concerned about taking too much credit, Willis is not at all averse to talking the talk as they say.
“My confidence is always high,” Willis said. “Some people take it as cockiness or arrogance, but it’s just me having confidence in myself that when I get on the field, I’m going to beat you on every play. My teammate is going to beat you every play and that’s just how it is. That’s not arrogance. That’s just how we feel.”
Three games in the rest of the league can’t argue that.