Willard, a 4-time state champion wrestler, making the most of his opportunity

by - Senior Writer -
Willard leads the Tigers with 54 tackles

Tig Willard, Olympic wrestler?

It might have happened, had Clemson’s leading tackler and linebacker elected to follow up on an outstanding high school wrestling career instead of following his passion and playing football in Death Valley.

Willard was one of Clemson’s most consistent defenders a year ago, but has stepped up his game even more this season, and he said earlier this week that he is even now applying the techniques that he learned while wrestling in high school.

He was a standout wrestler at Loris High School, earning 11 championship rings [both school and individual] while fashioning a career record of 155-16 and winning four state championships.

Willard wrestled at 171 pounds as a freshman and at 189 the rest of his high school career, a far cry from the 225 pounds he plays at today.

Willard said that trying to keep the weight on these days is a definite change from his high school wrestling days, when he was constantly trying to lose weight.

“Right now, it’s trying to eat the right food and eat so many times a day,” Willard said earlier this week. “In camp [in August], I was up to 234 or 235 and I felt a little fat. [In high school] it was crazy when I lost 14 pounds in like three days. It was basically just up early in the mornings and running for two hours. Then at practice, I would run again and have on a thousand pounds of clothes and then I would run after practice. I was eating salads.”

Loyal Tiger fan Ross Geer, who has spent time wrestling and coaching at Seneca High School said he saw Willard wrestle in high school, and said Willard could have been the best-ever in the state of South Carolina.

“I have had the opportunity to wrestle with and against some of the best wrestlers South Carolina has ever put out,” Geer said. “I've coached a few good ones, and have watched just about every top-flight grappler in SC over the last 10-15 years. Tig Willard is in the top 10 all-time from this state. Had he attended a high school like Eastside, he would have been the best ever, hands down. He probably would still be wrestling right now, probably training for the Olympics in four years. He won four titles on athleticism and strength alone...amazing.”

Willard said he actually had offers from Iowa and Iowa St. to wrestle for those programs – probably two of the top three wrestling programs of all-time – but wanted to be a Tiger, and defensive coordinator Brent VenablesBrent Venables
Defensive Coordinator / Linebackers
View Full Profile
said he is glad he has had the steady Willard.

“This year is kind of a reflection of who he’s been since I’ve been here,” Venables said. “He has been the most consistent in practice or in scrimmages over x number of months. He has played a lot of football here. He is a young man that cares deeply about this football program. He has maximized his opportunity, and he has allowed me as a position coach to put my focus in other places.”

Willard said he often takes out his 11 rings and shows them off to his teammates – wearing the rings on both hands – and often talks a little smack to defensive tackle Grady JarrettGrady Jarrett
So. Defensive Tackle
#50 6-1, 290
Conyers, GA

View Full Profile
in the process.

“Me and Grady Jarrett go at it all the time,” Willard said. “We go in there and just mess around a little bit. He was state champion from Georgia. He would [win] because he is bigger than me. But if we were the same size, then I would get him then.”

Willard currently leads the Tigers in tackles with 54, and said that has been just one of his goals this season.

“Leading the team in tackles is a goal for me,” he said. “One of my goals before the year was to lead the team in tackles and get over 100 tackles. I feel like I am on track for that, but it’s not over yet so I feel like I have to keep on playing hard.”

Willard’s continued development was showcased last week at Wake Forest, on back-to-back plays in the second quarter.

Clemson led 14-0 early in the quarter, but Wake Forest had driven to its own 44-yard line, where they faced a 2nd-and-11. Wake quarterback Tanner Price then tossed a pass out in the flat to Lovell Jackson, who only had to beat Willard for a big gain.

Willard shrugged off the blocker and dropped Jackson after a gain of only five yards, setting up a passing situation. On the next play, Willard blitzed and sacked Price for a seven-yard loss, ending the drive. Seven plays later, Clemson made it 21-0 and it was game over for the Demon Deacons.

Willard said earlier this week that he isn’t sure he could have made the first play a year ago.

“You take a guy’s wheels out, he can’t go anywhere,” Willard said. “Right now, it’s about confidence and showing I can play. I would say it [last year] would have been different. I didn’t know leverage-wise where I should have been.”

Willard credits Venables with helping him earn the confidence and teaching him the proper techniques.

“He has meant a lot to me,” he said. “He has helped me on my technique, staying low and being able to play off of people and get off of blocks. Ripping through linemen, things like that. He has also helped me on my blitzing techniques.”

Willard says he knows that Clemson has a lot of talented linebackers waiting in the wings, but he didn’t earn wrestling championships without having a great work ethic, something that serves him well now.

“I take it day-by-day,” he said. “I just want to show the coaches I am still here and able to play. If I can do that, then that’s all I can do.”

Rate this Story:
5 votes

Send Feedback to David Hood: Email | Comment

Monday's Clemson practice report

Swinney announces starter at quarterback

Swinney announces starting QB, lists who will likely play and who will redshirt

WATCH: McCloud discusses playing cornerback

WATCH: Carter sees depth as key to Clemson DBs surprising

Fuller: "I feel like I had a pretty good camp"

Renfrow on Bryant: 'We know that he's the guy'

WATCH: Swinney after Monday's practice

WATCH: Clemson Police releases Star Wars Eclipse video
Sign Up for E-Mail News Alerts
Daily Digest