Wirth's Time Finally Arrives

STORRS – Ryan Wirth is a character. He's the type of character you might find in a John Steinbeck novel, if the setting happened to be a football field. Or maybe he's that guy in the Bruce Springsteen song, chasing some mirage, believing in hope, and paying the price.

Wirth's story will never be compared to the script for "Rudy." It's not quite that dramatic. But it is about struggling, never giving up, and finally reaching that happy ending.

Connecticut's fifth-year senior is starting at defensive tackle and, after years of waiting in the wings, he now has a major role on one of college football's top defensive units. Wirth has 14 tackles, three tackles for loss, and one fumble recovery through three games. Linebackers Yawin Smallwood (35) and Sio Moore (17) are the only Huskies with more tackles to this point.

Has Wirth found his promised land? We will let Wirth answer that.

"Since I was a little kid, I wanted to play," Wirth said this week as the Huskies (2-1) prepared for Saturday's game at Western Michigan. "I wanted to play at the highest level of football. Since I was 15 or 16, I've been working to get where I am right now. And I'm just cherishing every moment that I have.

"I'm just trying to make it last as long as I can. I love it."

Anyone who has ever struggled along the path to success can understand how Wirth feels. The Medford, N.J., native will turn 24 years old on Dec. 13. As a senior in high school, he made 105 tackles and was named to all-area and all-region teams.

That was in 2006. For a football player, that's a long time ago.

After a year of prep school at Cheshire Academy ("It took a little while for that maturity light bulb to go on," Wirth said of his academics), Wirth arrived at UConn in 2008. He redshirted but was named defensive scout team player of the week prior to four games that season. The next three seasons, Wirth was on the UConn roster – but don't feel bad if you can't seem to remember him.

2009: Wirth played in two games (Rhode Island and Rutgers).

2010: Made four tackles while playing in a reserve role on the defensive line and on special teams.

2011: Played in nine games and made three tackles. Earned his first letter.

All that time, Wirth was in the back seat of UConn's defensive vehicle, trying to see around Kendall Reyes and Twyon Martin, a pair of defensive tackles who dominated the UConn landscape and lettered four times each. Wirth admits it would have been easy to put his head down and quit. He calls it a "cut throat business." But he took the other alternative and kept working.

"I've been waiting so long and learning a long time from these two guys, Twyon and Kendall," he said. "I just kept working. Working and working. I tried to do everything I possibly could. When my time came, obviously I had to snatch it, you know?

"I wanted to have no regrets. I just kept going and my time came."

With Reyes and Martin gone, there was concern about filling those holes on the interior defensive line. And when two-time letterman Shamar Stephen hurt his knee early in preseason practice, Wirth suddenly found himself in a pressure-packed situation.

He approached that with the same philosophy. It meant more hard work and paying closer attention to a learning process that began early in the summer with head coach Paul Pasqualoni and defensive line coach Hank Hughes.

"I try to be a team guy," Wirth said. "I don't want to be the weakest link. No one does. So I was going to go in there and do the job right. I want to earn the coaches' trust. That's always important to me. For me to do well for my team and for us to be successful on defense, stats aside, that's the most important thing. And the biggest thing is to win."

Reyes, a second-round pick of the San Diego Chargers in the 2012 NFL Draft, is 6-4 and 299 pounds. Stand him next to Wirth, 6-3 and 271, and it might be hard to believe they played the same position in college. While Wirth might not be as big or as imposing, he is a block of muscle with some obvious advantages going against offensive linemen.

Pasqualoni has praised Wirth's consistency this season, dating all the way back to the Blue-White spring game when he had a safety on a sack and made seven tackles – 5.5 for a loss and 4.5 sacks.

"He's well built and well suited for the position," Pasqualoni said this week. "He plays with very good leverage. He's using very good technique and fundamentals. I would say he has elevated his game from a fundamental/technique standpoint. And the fact that he's a fifth-year senior and now starting, he has taken real ownership in this thing. Sometimes when you are a fifth-year senior and you are starting and it's now your responsibility, things change. Ryan has done a great job."

Wirth mentions Pasqualoni's NFL background and cites that as a reason to pay close attention to individual drills with the head coach. He feels those sessions, the time he has spent with Hughes and the motivational coaching of defensive coordinator Don Brown have all contributed to his improvement.

"Without them, I don't think I'd be where I am today," Wirth said. "I've been fine tuned.

"[Pasqualoni] hasn't let me go back to my ‘cave man' approach. I used to just stick my head in there. There's a lot more to it. It brings success. You don't want to change now. I really try to do everything he says. He lets me know about it when I go back [to the old habits]."

Wirth caught everyone's attention after the second-week loss to North Carolina State. After that game at Rentschler Field, he was asked about the next game, against Maryland and former UConn coach Randy Edsall. He provided the sound bite of the week.

Ryan Wirth has become a key to UConn's defense (Ken Davis)

"It's not going to be hard to get fired up for that up one, definitely," Wirth said. "That's about it. That's all I'm going to say about that."

Asked if the upperclassmen are still filled with bitterness about the way Edsall left UConn, Wirth tried not to comment but gave everyone a little glimpse of where this stands.

"You know what? I'm not going to comment on that," Wirth said. "We're going to get it done. We're going to practice our ass off and we're just going to get it done."

After the 24-21 victory at Maryland last week, Wirth was there to answer questions again despite a slight case of the flu bug that bothered many of the Huskies in College Park, Md.

"We got it done man," he said. "It was sketchy, I would have liked a little better [margin] but we got the W. Coach Brown tells us there's always going to be adversity. It's how we rise up and come together. We did that, we got the job done, and I'm proud of all my guys."

Told you he was a character. But he's also a spark plug.

Wirth brings the enthusiasm of a coach to the field. There are many leaders on this superb defensive unit. Maybe Wirth wasn't counted among them in the preseason, but he has to be now.

"I enjoy working, I enjoy the grind, I enjoy every phase," Wirth said. "How many times do we take the field on Saturday? Twelve games. Not many. You've got to love every day. [The games] are a very small percentage of the work that goes into building that house that you're going to live in for the season. That's what I enjoy - maybe even the most."

Wirth's father played football at Division III Rowan University in New Jersey and once told Ryan his career would go by fast. He wanted his son to enjoy it and have no regrets.

Maybe that's why Ryan is so happy, living in the present, with his struggles behind him, and finally occupying his personal version of the "promised land."

"It's awesome," Wirth said. "Actually, the wait makes it all that much better. I think it even helped my attitude. A lot of guys leave this place without ever getting a chance to play. For me to have a role on this team means the world to me."

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