During the Wednesday practice in the week leading up to last year's Auburn game, Willard tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. The injury, which is commonly repaired by Tommy John surgery, forced him to miss just one game -- that Saturday's meeting on The Plains.
But Willard played a total of 160 snaps last season. Of those, 114 were after the injury, so were 16 of his 19 tackles.
For weeks, the pain was excruciating.
"It was crazy. All of the strength in my left arm was gone. I couldn't take on blocks. I couldn't even do a pushup or anything," he said. "It was difficult."
It's all gone now. Willard's back at full strength, has been since the summer. All that remains is a tear in what -- for him -- is a pretty useless ligament.
He continues to wear a brace over the elbow while playing, but only to keep it from being exposed.
"I've got all the strength back in my arm," Willard said. "I'm back bench pressing heavy weights. It feels good now. I'm taking on blocks better, [from] offensive linemen."
Just over a year after the injury, he was named ACC Linebacker of the Week for his performance in Clemson's 23-3 win over Virginia Tech.
"It feels great," Willard said, grinning from ear to ear, when asked about receiving the honor.
"Basically, I just went out there and did the best that I could do. I try to do my job every time. To be named player of the week, it's just like a dream come true."
The redshirt junior weak-side linebacker from Loris had nine tackles, including seven first hits and a tackle for loss as Clemson knocked off a third-straight nationally ranked opponent.
Through five games this season, he's been a tackling machine for the Tigers.
Willard is third on the team with 26 tackles [202 snaps]. He trails only Andre Branch and Jonathan Meeks, who've played 261 and 308 snaps, respectively.
Willard, a four-time state champion wrestler in high school, can credit some of his success on the gridiron to what he learned on the mat.
"With my tackling, I kind of get low. Most people kind of take that back to wrestling," he said. "As I'm getting on blocks, or getting off blocks, I can take that and use my hands. Most people say that my hands are quicker than normal, so I'm guessing it comes back to wrestling."
That's probably where the toughness comes from, too.
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