When the Connecticut football team makes its way down the highway to face Maryland on Saturday, the drive for most of the players will simply mark another trip to another school for another game. But for Tim Willman, it means coming home.
Willman, a junior defensive end for the Huskies from Fulton in Howard County, has continued to harness the natural abilities and strong work ethic that made him a standout player at Reservoir to put himself in position for a big season at UConn.
“In life, and it's the same in football, nothing is given to you,” said Willman, who wears No. 51 and has a 1,000-watt smile and bright red bow tie in his media picture. “I just kept grinding out on the football field, in the classroom and in the weight room and it's paid off.”
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While Willman, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound economics major, has worked his way up to a backup end spot, it is possible he would be starting if not for the player he backs up: senior Trevardo Williams. Last year Williams terrorized Big East quarterbacks for 13 sacks and has been named to a slew of defensive-award watch lists. But waiting is OK with Willman.
“It's great,” he said of playing behind Williams. “I learn a lot from talking to him.”
Sean Jones, Willman's high school coach, says this team-first attitude is what makes his former player a “coach's dream.” Willman is willing to do whatever is necessary for the team to succeed, and he did this frequently at Reservoir (where he also starred in lacrosse and basketball), playing wherever Jones needed him most on his way to earning all-county honors.
“Tim was the rock of our program his senior year,” Jones said.
While he may not garner the title of “rock” for his current team, Willman's role could increase this season, helping provide depth for what is shaping up to be one of the top defenses in the nation. Through two games, UConn fields the No. 3-ranked total defense and No.1 rushing defense, allowing 0.88 yards per rushing attempt, which will provide a tough test for Maryland's young offensive line and running backs.
With the media hovering over Saturday's game because Maryland coach Randy Edsall is taking on his former team, it would be within reason to believe Willman has placed a special emphasis on a game against his former coach and a school he wanted to play for. But he insists that he, along with his team, is approaching this game like any other.
“It's bigger than one game, it's about the whole season,” said Willman, who is determined to see his team reach another BCS bowl game and claim another Big East championship.
But the truth is Sept. 15 will be special — not for whom Willman is playing against as much as whom he is playing for. While Willman's parents are always present at his games, he expects between 40 and 50 family members, friends and former coaches to come out to watch him in his unofficial homecoming.
So when No.51 takes the field on Saturday, as thousands of Maryland fans drown out the UConn presence in Byrd Stadium, Willman will know that somewhere out there are dozens of people cheering for him to succeed, cheering for his return.
“It's going to be awesome,” Willman said. “I'm going to be out there trying to make them proud.”