Willard keeping defense grounded

Clemson linebacker Jonathan Willard reacts after Florida State kicker Dustin Hopkins missed a field goal at the end of the second quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

CLEMSON — So many times during the last two seasons, little mistakes resulted in big problems for the Clemson defense. Little things, like a linebacker playing on a blocker’s inside shoulder rather than staying outside, thus losing leverage and leading to a big play.

But on a second-and-11 play in the second quarter at Wake Forest, Clemson linebacker Jonathan “Tig” Willard stayed on the outside shoulder of a Wake blocker. It was tempting to move inside because that’s where Wake’s Lovell Jackson appeared to be headed. But Willard stayed disciplined, he stayed outside. So when Jackson was funneled outside, Willard was there to make an open-field tackle.

“I couldn’t let him get outside so I had to fight to stay outside the whole time,” Willard said. “Last year, I didn’t know leverage-wise where I was supposed to be.”

So many times over the last two seasons, Clemson defenders had failed to make impact plays. Clemson linebackers recorded just 15 tackles for loss last season.

But on the following third down play at Wake, Willard blitzed. The senior dipped his shoulder below the hands of a Wake offensive lineman and accelerated into quarterback Tanner Price, leveling him for a sack.

After so much defensive inconsistency, Willard has become a consistent performer, leading what Clemson hopes is a defensive turnaround with a team-best 62 tackles.

“It’s football 101, understanding not just what I’m supposed to do, but why,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “It’s muscle memory.”

Willard’s stated goal is a 100-tackle season.

He is coming off back-to-back, double-digit tackle performances. He has three tackles for loss in the last two weeks and leads Clemson with 5½ tackles for loss on the season.

Over the last four games, Clemson has improved from 111th in the country in yards allowed per rush (5.4) to 94th (4.8).

Clemson’s total defense ranking improved from 95th overall on Sept. 28 to 85th this week.

Leading the improvement is Willard, a humble kid from Loris High School. The smile and pleasant demeanor he normally exhibits hardly seems a personality fit for the role of outside linebacker.

“He’s a guy that’s played a lot of football. A young man that cares deeply, very selfless and he’s maximized his opportunities,” Venables said.

So many times, Willard had been written off.

When Clemson signed two five-star linebackers in its 2011 recruiting class — Tony Steward and Stephone Anthony — Willard appeared destined for limited playing time this season.

Willard said he was never bothered by the talk. He wanted to compete.

The 6-2, 220-pounder former high school wrestling star has held on to his starting linebacker job.

“Wrestlers are tough,” Venables said. “I love wrestlers. They have something a lot of guys don’t have.”

Willard is playing with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow that affects the arm’s range of motion. In baseball, the injury would require Tommy John surgery.

His wrestling experience might explain why he has been one of the team’s more consistent tacklers.

“Take his wheels out and he can’t go anywhere,” Willard said.