Watch Ben Boulware play football and you see all the intangibles of an old-school, hard-nosed linebacker.
The Clemson junior is fiery and intense. He plays with reckless abandon. Some might even classify him as nasty, exactly what a linebacker is supposed to be, but don’t confuse that wild look in his eyes on game day with the real Ben Boulware.
It’s just a switch he flips.
“I wouldn’t say I’m crazy,” Boulware said. “I’m a pretty normal guy off the field. It’s been pretty easy for me (to flip the switch) my whole life.”
When he’s not chasing down ballcarriers, his teammates describe him as calm (yes, calm), funny and a character. He plays jokes and has fun like everybody else, but the fun he has when he straps on his helmet is quite the opposite style.
“It’s a bittersweet situation because you know he’s getting you better, but you can’t take plays off because you'll be on your butt,” running back C.J. Davidson said about practicing against Boulware. “Ben’s a great competitor. We joke a lot about how he never takes a play off. Some guys have just got that look.”
Boulware says it’s his “motor” that separates him from others at his position.
“Either guys have it or they don’t, but for me it hasn’t been difficult at all,” Boulware said.
That was quite evident during his time at T.L. Hanna High where, as a linebacker, he was always around the ball. He totaled nearly 600 tackles in his career, returned kickoffs and just wreaked havoc all over the field.
“I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just playing backyard football,” Boulware said about his high school days. “Our defense was very simple. Basically, see ball, get ball. That’s the way I had been playing my entire life until I got (to Clemson).”
That actually made life difficult on Boulware at first. That intense personality fit with coordinator Brent Venables’ defense, but the raw emotion and lack of mental concentration didn’t. Venables runs a very strict, precise scheme.
“I just knew he was like a wild buck,” Venables said. “He always wanted to have something to say to explain why whatever happened, and it was the end of the world when he was wrong. He’s just very passionate, so I had to tell him a few times to let me speak, let me coach you, get you corrected.”
Boulware – whose brother, Garrett, played baseball for the Tigers and was a huge reason why Ben chose to stay close to home – admits he wasn’t ready to play as a freshman from a mental standpoint, although Venables used him right away because of his “love to play” and desire to “chase balls sideline to sideline.”
But Boulware had a lot to learn. In fact, knowledge has turned him into a reliable, starting linebacker and leader on defense.
“If I was talking to a high school senior coming in, the game really is 80 to 90 percent mental,” Boulware said. “You have to know what you’re doing. If you do that, you'll be successful.
“I definitely didn’t think it would be as hard as it was. People underestimate how difficult it is to play college football. Learning the mental aspect of it, learning the playbook, learning the defense, learning what the offense is doing, and just learning how all those pieces to the puzzle work out. You have to put in a lot of time and a lot of energy to be successful.”
Gaining knowledge has also taught Boulware how to control those emotions – at least enough to know what he’s doing.
“He’s learned how to channel that great energy and motor that he has into being a good football player, not just a guy running around hitting people,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’s really become very knowledgeable. He’s very smart.”
Swinney compared Boulware’s learning process to former linebacker and New Orleans Saints first-round draft pick Stephone Anthony. Like Anthony, once Boulware made a commitment to study film and took ownership of his position, leadership qualities began to emerge.
“It’s been fun to watch him go through that growth,” Swinney said. “Another one of those guys that this team has great respect for.”
Boulware’s awareness has also cut down on those debates with Venables, who smiles when he talks about his linebacker’s intensity.
“That’s a great problem to have. Occasionally, you’re going to have to (reel him in), but he’s been good,” Venables said. “He’s matured, understands and knows when and what’s appropriate.
“I think he’s focused off the field. When he’s in that meeting room, he’s intense and focused in the right way. He loves to ask questions. He wants to know why. Eager to learn, eager to master his craft. I love it.”