Willard playing pain free, excelling on the field

by - Senior Writer -
Willard was named the ACC Linebacker of the Week on Monday.

CLEMSON – A year has made a huge difference for Clemson linebacker Tig Willard.

In the week before the Auburn game a year ago, Willard tore a ligament in his left elbow, the type of injury that usually requires Tommy John surgery.

The 6-2, 222-pound junior out of Loris, S.C., decided to play through the pain and still made two starts while registering 13 tackles on special teams.

Every collision, however, was a lesson in agony. Willard said he couldn’t lift his arm above his head, was completely unable to defend a pass with his left arm, and his tackling technique was simple – hold on with his right arm while waiting for a teammate to come in and finish the tackle.

A year later, a healthier Willard has been a key component for a young Clemson defense in need of leadership, and he recorded nine tackles in Clemson’s win over Virginia Tech. As a result, he was named the ACC’s Linebacker of the Week, and he said on Monday that even he is shocked by the changes in just one calendar year.

“Last year, I was kind of hurt and didn’t get much playing time,” Willard said. “I tried to learn the playbook more, and tried to learn why we do what we do. That enables me to play faster, and that is one of the main reasons I am having such a good year so far.”

Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said Saturday night that Willard has been a “glue” for the defense and credited his leadership on the field during the game against the Hokies as one of the reasons that Clemson held Tech to just three points.

For his part, Willard says he is still trying to process the whirlwind start to the season.

“I am still taking it all in,” he said. “It [being named player of the week] feels great. But I just went out there and did the best that I was able to do. I did my job every time, and to be named the player of the week is like a dream come true for me.”

Willard still plays with a brace on his elbow for protection, and says the thoughts of having to play with the pain are never far from his thoughts.

“As of right now, it’s not bothering me,” he said. “It is doing excellent right now. I got all of my strength back in my arm, and I am taking on blocks better from the offensive linemen. I didn’t take the surgery – I just rehabbed it and basically strengthened the muscle around it. I was rehabbing the whole time.”

Willard said the pain was “crazy” as he battled through until the end of the season.

“All of the strength in my left arm was gone,” he said. “I couldn’t take on blocks and I couldn’t even do a push-up. It was painful. I could lift it, but it would take me a minute. I gained back some of the strength by the Florida St. game last year, and I could do a little bit more. When I made a tackle, I was just holding them up and waiting on a teammate to come from behind. But then I did what I could do this summer to get my strength back. It is good now.”

Willard said he feels like he has been preparing for this moment his entire life- he was rated as a top 25 linebacker in the nation by most scouting services in high school – and is ready to live up to his nickname.

He said he earned the name “Tig” shortly after he was born.

“I guess when I was born, I had a kind of orange complexion,” he said. “So my older brother said I looked like Tigger or a Tiger. So now, everybody calls me Tig. I don’t even know how I would respond if someone called me Jonathan.”

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