CLEMSON — Not assured a starting job after a breakout junior season, Jonathan Willard has emerged as perhaps the most dependable linebacker in Clemson’s blossoming defense.
“During the spring practices, there was debate if he was going to be playing a lot or starting,” quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “He took the mindset and mentality that he was going to do whatever he needed to help this team.
“He’s one of the most unselfish people I know.”
Nicknamed “Tig” as a child by an older brother for the Pooh stories character, Willard leads Clemson in tackles, tackles for loss and pass break ups from weakside linebacker. In 11 starts last season, he was credited with 75 tackles. His goal this season was 100, and he’s at 62 — on pace to come close during the regular season.
His teammates love him because of his good nature and quiet relentlessness.
“I’ve always been impressed with Tig, how he comes to work each and every day, never says anything, just a blue collar guy,” center Dalton Freeman said. “It’s always, ‘I’m here to work. What do we have to do? Let’s do it.’”
Boyd characterized him as an “old school-type player,” saving his most demonstrative moments on the field. During last week’s game at Wake Forest, he made big plays back-to-back to stuff a drive, leapt to his feet and pumped the air.
“When he gets out there, he plays as if he’s on fire,” Boyd said. “I love watching him because I don’t think there’s a more excited player than Tig. He’s going to lay it all out there for you.”
Willard’s production on a defense slow to define itself has made the job a bit easier for first-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Clemson began to show flashes of progress at Boston College, limited each of the past two opponents to two touchdowns and held Wake Forest to a season-low 290 yards.
“Although there’s plenty to coach every day, he’s allowed me to put my focus where it needs to be,” said Venables, also the linebackers coach. “It’s been one of the more pleasing aspects of piecing this thing together.”
Willard was a wrestler at little Loris High. In four years, he won 155 matches and four state championships and had scholarship offers to Iowa and Iowa State, schools with 31 wrestling national championships between them. He became a wrestler in the seventh grade when he couldn’t audition for basketball, but football was his first love. He was a quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end at Loris.
Wrestling is behind him, Willard said, though frequently he and 300-pound Grady Jarrett, also a high school wrestler, will square off for fun. Jarrett outweighs him by 80 pounds.
“I think by me being a wrestler and having to go up and drop down, go up and drop down kind of messed me up a little bit,” Willard said.
Willard wrestled at 171 pounds as a freshman, then 189. Once he lost 14 pounds in three days, running for hours in layers of heavy clothing, eating nothing but salad. During spring practice, he weighed a near-ideal 234, his highest ever, though he admitted feeling fat.
His work with former All-America linebacker Keith Adams, who’s serving as a volunteer coach as he finishes his degree, has been helped, “try this type of food. Eat this many times a day.”
“He’s a guy that’s played a lot of football here, cares deeply about this football program, very selfless attitude, he’s maximized his opportunities,” Venables said. “He’s grown in that role, his understanding. I think he’s playing with a lot of confidence and level of comfort. I think there’s more to be had by a long ways.”
Venables loves wrestlers, and he had plenty of them during his years on the staffs at Oklahoma and Kansas State. The mechanics of securing a tackle are similar to a wrestler wrapping and taking down an opponent.
Freeman said Willard “never misses.”
Occasionally, he’ll slip the 11 rings he won as a wrestler on the fingers of both hands.
“Everybody loves to play with him,” Boyd said. “He’s one of those guys you’ll always remember.”