Utah State football: 'Connor the Barbarian' helps drive defense
Logan • The teasing comes with the territory for Connor Williams, though at first he fought it.
Arriving in Logan from Ontario as a freshman, Williams didn't appreciate it when his new Utah State teammates egged him on by saying Canadians couldn't play football. In the first few days of his freshman camp, he tried to show them all how wrong they were.
"I shut [up] a few people my very first few days: All I did was headhunt people," he said, laughing at the memories. "Actually, I got a reward for that in my first scrimmage from Kellen Bartlett. He's going to kill me for bringing that up."
These days, the 21-year-old is comfortable with both where he's from and where he is. The senior defensive end is coming off an all-WAC honorable mention season, and he's one of the Aggies' leaders on defense after topping the team with six sacks last year.
He still strides onto the field looking to prove himself every day, only now, he takes out his aggression on opponents.
"I'd say he's very driven," teammate B.J. Larsen said. "To play defense, you've got to have a chip on your shoulder. You've got to have swagger. He definitely gives us that."
Williams invites his reputation: The brawny lineman has the thick beard, tattoos on his biceps and a long, flowing mane that inspired his most well-known nickname: Conan the Barbarian.
At a recent team get-together, the Aggies had a look-alike event. When a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger in full movie get-up popped up on the screen next to Williams' picture, he rolled his eyes. The name has just stuck.
"Honestly, I just call him Conan," Larsen said. "I can't remember the last time I called him Connor."
Williams hasn't always had long hair. He didn't even always like football. Which was funny, because the sport has long been the family's pastime.
His uncles Shane Ireland and Brian Wise both played in the CFL. Williams played, mostly out of a sense of duty and because hockey was expensive but he didn't much like it.
That changed when he saw Utah play in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl against Pittsburgh. Wise, a former Ute player, introduced his nephew to the excitement of college football. Afterward, Williams was pushing and pushing to go to Utah before he got a late call from Gary Andersen.
"He told me he came up here to rebuild a program, it was going to be something special, and I wanted to be a part of that," Williams remembered. "At the last minute, I signed."
Mining the Canadian recruit turned out to be quite the coup for Utah State. Williams started all 13 games last year and enters this season as the most experienced lineman in the Aggies' defensive fold. He's one of the strongest players on the team, earning an Iron Aggie last year and getting some of the heaviest squats in the weight room.
He does have a mischievious side. Larsen suspected that Williams had a hand in organizing a coach-versus-coach break in practice, in which coaches were paired off to go after jump balls. If there ever is a coach dance-off, you can bet Williams will play a part in that as well.
For years, Williams kept his hair close-cropped. But not long after another football-playing uncle, Phil Ireland, died, Williams missed a haircut.
"My uncle played football, and he always wore his hair long," Williams said. " I thought maybe I'd honor him in a way."
There's no doubt that Williams is making his hometown proud, or at least drawing its attention. During the offseason, Williams was selected by the Ottawa Red Blacks, a CFL expansion team that will start playing in 2014. They hope that Williams considers returning home to begin his pro football career after his senior campaign is over.
That's far ahead of him at this point. Yes, he's still proud to be Canadian. But for now, he's just an Aggie.
"If I have a successful season, we'll see what comes out of it," he said. "I assume one day when I have to get a real job, I'll have to cut my hair. I'm just enjoying it for now."
Connor Williams file
• Utah State defensive end
• All-WAC honorable mention in '12
• Racked up 32 tackles, six sacks and one forced fumble as a junior
• Is the only Canadian on Utah State's roster
• Was defensive MVP at Holy Trinity High (Ontario) as a sophomore, junior and senior