The Willy Korn Interview (part I)

CLEMSON - In this two-part series, CUTigers catches up with former Clemson QB Willy Korn. To say there's a story to tell is nothing short of an understatement.

The courtship of Willy Korn was short, sweet and to the point.

The summer before his junior year, a Clemson offer was extended when head coach Tommy Bowden placed a phone to call to Bobby Bentley.

"No one else needed to come knocking on the door," Korn said on The Roy Philpott Show late last week.

A native of Ohio, Korn and his family moved to Anderson when he was in the fourth grade. The family spent many a Saturday afternoon in Death Valley.

"We'd go on the field after games and play catch with my brother and my dad. That was my dream," he said. "I wanted to rub the rock, wear the orange, run down the hill."

Willy Korn announced his commitment to Clemson during this Aug. 1, 2005 press conference at Byrnes High School. (Roy Philpott)
By the time he announced for Clemson just weeks before the start of his junior season, Kentucky, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia Tech had also offered.

"My blood was orange, straight orange," Korn said. "I never second-guessed myself. I knew that was where I wanted to be."

After committing to Clemson, Korn was as firm as firm could be. The only school he visited, unofficially or officially, was Clemson.

Meanwhile, at Byrnes, Korn completed 795 of 1,181 passes for 10,716 yards and 125 touchdown passes. He also helped lead the Rebels to South Carolina AAAA state championships during his sophomore and junior years.

The former four-star quarterback by thinks back to his days at Byrnes fondly.

"It's just one huge family," Korn said. "It's really neat that my brother got to play there as well. He was apart of that, so we'll always have that connection. We'll always be able to go to Byrnes, workout and talk about the ‘glory days.'"

Korn arrives at Clemson
To say Korn enrolled at Clemson in January of 2007 with lofty expectations would be a quite an understatement.

The entire weight of a program yearning to return to glory was rested upon the shoulders of the No. 8 rated quarterback in the nation. Expectations from the fan base were through the roof.

And for good reason.

For a state as small as South Carolina, it's rarely ever low on talented high school football players. Among the positions that have traditionally weak in the state, in terms of producing blue-chip talent, is quarterback.

Korn was rated as one of the top ten quarterbacks in the country out of Byrnes High School. (Roy Philpott)
Korn was arguably the most coveted Palmetto State quarterback since 1986, when Woodruff's Tony Rice opted to sign with Notre Dame over Clemson. Korn came along nearly 20 years later, hailed as the state's best quarterback since Rice, who went on to become an All-American for the Fighting Irish in 1989.

A two-time state champion at Byrnes, Korn was supposed to be the savior who would lead Clemson to its first ACC Championship since 1991.

Nobody believed it would happen more than he did.

"It was really exciting," Korn said. "I never got into what other people's expectations are for me, because nobody's expectations for me are higher for me than my own.

"If somebody said I was going to throw for 5,000 yards, in my mind, I was going to throw for 6,000 yards."

But series of injuries prevented Korn from reaching what he and so many others thought he would do at Clemson. His career as a Tiger ended after three years.

Korn played in two of the first three games as a freshman in 2007, completing 8 of 11 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown. A fractured collarbone sidelined Korn for the remainder of the season.

In 2008, he played in six games and made his first career start against Georgia Tech -- Dabo Swinney's first game as head coach. Korn completed 4 of 6 for 28 yards with an interception in 14 snaps before suffering injury to the same shoulder. He underwent surgery prior to the Gator Bowl to repair damaged cartilage.

As a redshirt sophomore in 2009, Korn went without injury in the six games he played in, but completed just 12 of 17 passes for 90 yards with one touchdown and an interception. He also rushed for a score.

"I still," he said, "Every once in a while, I think, ‘Man, I really wish I could have helped this football team win football games here at Clemson. I wanted that so bad.'"

Korn entered his first season at Clemson with grounded expectations, knowing he was competing for the starting job with Cullen Harper, a redshirt junior.

"I was just trying to focus on learning as much as I possibly could from the playbook, from the other coaches, just what to expect from my first spring practice, learning the signals," Korn said. "That was the only thing I focused on, and surviving mat drills, of course. It's scary for an 18-year-old kid -- my first-time away from home."

Willy Korn enrolled a semester early and is seen here playing in the 2007 Orange & White game. (Roy Philpott)
During Korn's recruitment, he would watch Toledo tape with offensive coordinator Rob Spence, who held the same position for the Rockets for four years.

"It was pretty much like watching the offense I ran at Byrnes," Korn said.

That offense spread out the field for the quarterback, who was utilized as both a passer and a runner.

"That spring practice, it was a little bit more geared towards Cullen's strengths -- a little bit more under center, play-action, drop back-type stuff, a little bit more I-formation with the tight end," Korn said. "That [was] fine. I felt like I adapted pretty well to it. I was expecting it to be more spread out than it was, but I picked it up pretty quick and just did as best I could to compete."

Harper received a bulk of the first-team snaps during preseason camp.

"I wanted to compete and wanted to be that guy, but I knew I had to wait for my turn and earn my spot in due time," Korn said.

His first career snap was against Louisiana-Monroe in the second game of the season. The first shoulder injury occurred a week later against Furman.

"It was a play-action pass, I went to run and I was thinking I was still at Byrnes…I was an idiot, should have thrown the ball away. I tried to lower my shoulder on this big linebacker," Korn said.

On the ground he went after taking a hit directly to the shoulder.

"It felt really weird. I felt something pop in my shoulder," Korn said.

His roommate, fullback Chad Diehl, suffered a broken leg in the same game. Korn decided to have his shoulder looked at when he took Diehl for treatment the next morning.

It was a hairline fracture in collarbone of his throwing shoulder.

Something was off when Korn began his second spring practice.

Korn would go on to learn that his shoulder didn't heal properly after he opted to redshirt in the previous season, largely because he continued to throw in practice and in warm-ups.

"Definitely, in that spring practice, I wasn't throwing the same way that I'm used to," he said. "I was dropping the ball down really low, got into some bad habits after I decided to redshirt."

Even as Korn battled again with Harper for the starting job, he wasn't aware that his throws weren't sound, "technically and fundamentally."

The pressure mounted.

"I never had to think about, make sure you do this mechanically. Make sure you do this fundamentally," he said. "Then you get asked about it by about 10 reporters everyday. It starts to weigh on you.

Korn speaks with the media after practice on Oct. 13, 2008 - the day Tommy Bowden resigned. (Roy Philpott)
"That's when I realized, all right, I need to fix this. But even then I still should have put more emphasis into than I did. I was still focused on, I've got to keep the beat in practice. I've got to show coach Spence that I'm worthy of playing time."

Harper was firmly entrenched as the starter before the 2008 season. But after six games, head coach Tommy Bowden named Korn the starting quarterback after the sixth game of the season. Bowden was forced out just days later after Clemson started with a 3-3 record.

Even then, Korn's health still wasn't quite at 100 percent.

"I wasn't throwing my best at all, but enough in the tank to get the job done," he said.

Swinney, who was named interim head coach, named Korn the starter. That game against Georgia Tech started pretty well for Korn, got off to an early roll, thanks to Billy Napier calling some quick passes Michael Palmer and roll-out throws to Tyler Grisham and Aaron Kelly.

"But then came the big wood chop. Derrick Morgan came," Korn said.

Then came a snap.

"It was like nothing I'd ever experienced before," he said.

His right arm "felt like a noodle."

Despite the pain, he played in the next three games against Boston College, Florida State and Duke.

"I should have shut it down immediately after the Georgia Tech game and had the surgery then," Korn said. "I didn't know how severe it was. I partially tore he labrum.

"It wasn't until that Virginia game that I was warming up. I'd never thrown a football worse than that. It was embarrassing. I can laugh about it now, kind of, with a squeamish face, but it was embarrassing warming up before that game. I knew right then and there, I'm done with this year."

Though Harper graduated, Korn still battled for the starting job. By the time spring practice rolled around in 2009, he and Kyle Parker were competing for the starting job. Parker all but locked up the battle by the end of spring practice.

Parker started every game at quarterback that season and helped lead Clemson to the school's first ACC Championship game.

Korn saw the writing on the wall as the Tigers mounted a six-game winning streak to close out the season.

As he said, "it was time to move on."

"It wasn't something I wanted to do, but it was just something I had to accept."

Before the bowl game, Korn announced that he would continue is football career elsewhere after graduating in the spring semester of 2010.

"Honestly, if I could go back in time and change anything, I wouldn't. I wouldn't have said that when it first happened, when I first got injured at Clemson," he said. "Now, after I've been through the whole process and finished up two unbelievable seasons at North Greenville, I wouldn't change a thing.

"I've learned so much about myself, persevering and not giving up. It's not just because of me. I have a lot of people supporting me. Don't get me wrong. I wanted to quit real bad, at one point. My dad and my brother were always there to encourage me, family members and close friends."

And he would carry all he learned to Huntington, W.V. to Marshall University. At least for a few months...

Stay tuned for Part II of the story to be released Monday on CUTigers. Top Stories