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Football Game Program Feature: “Born To Be a Tiger”

Football Game Program Feature: “Born To Be a Tiger”

By Davis SimpsonA key member of the Tiger defense in 2011, senior linebacker Jonathan “Tig” Willard will be counted on in 2012 to make tackles and provide leadership for the Clemson squad.

The first thing that many people often wonder about Willard is how he got the nickname, “Tig,” but he admitted even he really is not sure.

“I got that nickname a few days after I was born,” he said.  “There have been a lot of stories about where the name came from, but I don’t really know the true story.”

The Loris, SC native signed with Clemson in 2008 after choosing the Tigers over Florida, Michigan, South Carolina, and Tennessee.  His uncle, Richard McCullough, played at Clemson from 1985-88, but Willard said that McCullough did not pressure him into attending Clemson.

“He would tell me stories from when he was here, but at the end of every conversation, he would tell me to go to where my heart took me,” explained Willard.

McCullough played on Clemson’s ACC Championship teams of 1986, 1987, and 1988 under Head Coach Danny Ford.

However, Willard chose Clemson anyway because of the family atmosphere.

“I have been a Tiger all my life,” stated Willard.  “Listening to my uncle’s stories and then when I came here for a visit, it was like a big family.  I saw how the guys interacted with one another and it was like being home.”

Willard red-shirted in 2008, then he saw action in every game on defense or special teams as a red-shirt freshman in 2009.  He played 32 snaps that season and recorded 10 tackles, including three tackles for loss.

In 2010, Willard played 12 games and made two starts (North Texas, Wake Forest).  He played 160 snaps and registered 27 tackles, including a season-high five tackles in both of his starts.

Also in 2010, Willard won the Vickery Hall Award.  The award honors student-athletes for doing all the right things academically, such as going to class, showing up to tutoring on time, having good grades, and succeeding on the student part of being a student-athlete.  Willard believes the award shows that he is doing well in the classroom.

“It means that I am doing all the right things academically and as a student-athlete,” said Willard.  “To me, it means that I am on the right track to graduate, and right now I only have a few hours left.”

In 2011, #46 improved his season performance again as he played all 14 games and started 11.  He finished the season with 75 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss.  Willard has been able to progress each season by improving at least one aspect of his game a day.

“Watching film and talking with the coaches about what I need to do better has helped me progress,” he said.  “I go to practice every day and try to fix one thing, because I know if I can fix one thing a day, then I’m going to be on a good path.”

He set a career-high in tackles against Boston College in 2011 when he tallied 13 stops.  His goal that day was to match former Eagle linebacker and current Carolina Panther Luke Kuechly.

“I felt like every time Luke made a tackle, I had to make a tackle.  So I used that as my motivation and I think he ended up with 16 tackles that game.”

Willard was also a big part of the Tigers’ 2011 ACC Championship and said it meant a lot to him to bring that title back to Tigertown.

“It meant a lot to me to win an ACC Championship.  It was like a dream come true.  Everyone likes to win championships, but to be at a Division I college and win a championship like that, it was a really big deal.”

In each of his three seasons as a Tiger, Willard has been able to more than double his tackle total from the previous season.  In addition, his uncle finished his four-year career with 137 tackles, so Willard is fast approaching his total that will enable him to become the leading Tiger tackler in his family.

Willard has 119 career tackles and eight tackles for loss, including his first career sack against #25 Auburn in Clemson’s 26-19 victory last weekend.

“I want to continue to be consistent and play hard every down,” said Willard.  “I want to step up and be a leader and be more vocal towards the players and the team.  I am trying to be in more of a coach’s role as well and help the other guys and coach them up.”

Apart from wanting to win games and another ACC Championship, Willard stated that the team wants to be physical and continue to play well at home.  “We want to have a very physical team.  We also want to stay consistent at home and try to win all our home games again this season.”

After the Tigers finish the 2012 season, Willard will look to continue his football career at the next level.

“After Clemson, I will pursue a career in the NFL, and if that doesn’t work out, then I will pursue a job.”

The sociology major might pursue something in his minor, horticulture, if a career in the NFL does not go according to plan.  “I am thinking about going after my minor first and doing some horticulture and maybe a little landscape designing.”

Looking back on his four-plus years at Clemson, Willard has little trouble deciding on his favorite moment.

“My favorite moment in my entire career was winning the ACC Championship game last season.  At end of the game, everyone was jumping around when we knew we had actually won the game.  There was so much emotion on the sideline.

“We went back in the locker room and there was a lot of emotion.  Everyone was hugging and jumping around.  We started playing music and dancing, and even Coach (Dabo) Swinney was dancing, so that is definitely my favorite moment here at Clemson.”