The challenge of bringing the Texas Tech defense up to championship level was placed in the hands of James Willis as he was named the Red Raiders' defensive coordinator on Jan 14. Willis spent three seasons as an assistant under coach Tuberville in Auburn and last year with NCAA champion Alabama.
Willis' year-long stop in Tuscaloosa was a fruitful one as the Tide won the national championship in a 14-0 season. Serving as associate head coach to Nick Saban, Willis coached the linebackers and helped lead a defense that ranked second nationally in total defense. All-American linebacker Rolando McClain played under Willis' direction last season and claimed the prestigious Butkus Award at season's end.
Willis spent the 2006-08 seasons as the linebackers coach at Auburn under Tuberville. The Tigers ranked No. 7 nationally in scoring defense in 2006 and followed with a No. 6 ranking in 2007 and a No. 14 ranking in scoring defense in 2008. Auburn appeared in two bowls during his tenure - the 2007 AT&T Cotton Bowl and the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Tigers defeated Nebraska 17-14 in the Cotton Bowl and defeated Clemson 23-20 in overtime in the Chick-fil-A. Willis also coached a pair of Freshman All-Americans at linebacker at Auburn in Tray Blackmon (2006) and Spencer Pybus (2008).
Prior to his stint at Auburn, Willis coached the linebackers at Temple (2005) and Rhode Island (2004-05). He coached Rhode Island linebacker Teddy Gibbons to team MVP and All-Atlantic 10 Conference honors in 2004. In 2003, Willis was a defensive graduate assistant at Auburn after working as a student assistant the previous two years at AU.
Willis spent seven seasons in the NFL and one season in the XFL. He began his professional career with the Green Bay Packers (1993-94) before making the move to Philadelphia (1995-98), where he was a three-year starter for the Eagles. His final NFL season was in 1999 with the Seattle Seahawks and his playing career concluded in 2001 with the Birmingham Thunderbolts of the XFL where he was the league's defensive most valuable player.
Over the course of his seven-year NFL career, he was a part of six playoff teams including two conference championships. His most memorable game in the state of Texas came as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles in a crucial NFC East game against the Dallas Cowboys back in 1996. Willis intercepted Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman deep in the end zone and ran the ball out 14 yards and threw a lateral pass to Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent, who returned it 90 yards for a touchdown with 15 seconds left to help seal the Eagles' 31-21 win.
As a collegiate player, Willis was a three-year starter at Auburn (1990-92). He recorded 344 career tackles and was a member of the 1990 Peach Bowl team. Willis was a first team All-SEC selection in 1992 and was the SEC Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year in 1990. A fifth round draft pick by Green Bay following his junior season, Willis returned to earn his degree in Adult Education from Auburn.
Willis was born in Huntsville, Ala. and played high school football at J.O. Johnson High School, where he was a Parade All-American as a linebacker. He and his wife, Shalane, are the proud parents of daughter, Jade, and sons, Jalen and Jordan James.