SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -Mike Singletary sees all the obvious similarities between linebackers Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis - the passion, the speed, the uncanny knack for making the big hits at the most important times.
Yet the wide-eyed Hall of Fame linebacker also knows a few things that fans miss when they compare Baltimore's famed Lewis to Willis, the San Francisco linebacker who aspires to be just like Ray.
And Singletary believes his newest pupil can be the next big thing to wear No. 52.
``The great thing about Patrick is that he has a chance to get to that place where Ray already is,'' Singletary said. ``There's a thing in this game about passing the baton, and I could see that possibly happening. I'm very excited for the possibility. I want to see how (Willis) handles success, and how he handles the comparisons.''
Singletary, the 49ers' assistant head coach, has mentored both players in his still-brief coaching career. He thinks Willis can someday live up to the lofty comparisons - perhaps starting with Sunday's meeting between the clubs at Candlestick Park.
``I feel so fortunate to get this chance as a coach,'' said Singletary, the Ravens' inside linebackers coach in 2003-04. ``It's so rare that you find someone with all the ability and the character to match it. I feel fortunate I got to coach two of those guys in my career.''
When Singletary first met Willis at the Senior Bowl in January, he didn't realize he might have found the next big name in his former position's long tradition - in fact, he didn't even know who Willis was at first.
Willis, who won the Butkus Award at Mississippi as the nation's top linebacker, quickly caught Singletary's attention with his nonstop motor and intelligent questions during practice, though they didn't have much one-on-one conversation.
``I was excited about his attitude, his personality and his approach to the game,'' Singletary said. ``It reminded me of (Lewis). I was pleasantly surprised when I went to Baltimore that Ray was so eager to absorb anything that I could tell him.''
When the 49ers had a chance to get Willis with the 11th overall pick, they jumped at it - and Willis has exceeded expectations ever since he took a starting job away from leading tackler Brandon Moore in the preseason.
Willis was outstanding in the first month of the regular season, leading the 49ers with 51 tackles and drawing fans' attention on almost every series. He's the heart of a rapidly improving defense that has kept the 49ers (2-2) competitive while their offense struggles.
Willis has been enamored with Lewis' playing style ever since watching the Ravens' Super Bowl victory in January 2001. He proclaimed the Baltimore veteran as his favorite NFL player when he was drafted, though he had never attended a Ravens game.
``It will be exciting to see him actually playing in person,'' Willis said. ``He'll be right across the way, so I'll have to keep an eye on what he's doing when their defense is on the field.''
While San Francisco's fans already have anointed Willis as the next big thing, Singletary isn't ready to crown his young protege just yet. He'll wait to make that evaluation until Willis has endured a full season with the accompanying fatigue and setbacks - what every linebacker must overcome to reach greatness.
``Patrick has great potential, but there's a difference,'' Singletary said. ``You're looking at a guy that has the right to be called a great player, and you're comparing him to a kid that's looking forward to being a great player. There's a difference in that, and I think it's exciting to watch the transformation.''

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