Published September 19. 2012 4:00AM
Storrs — Ryan Wirth is equal parts dreamer and realist.
When he arrived at UConn, the 6-foot-4, 271-pound tackle dreamed of being a disruptive force in the middle of the Husky defense.
Wirth the realist, however, knew he would have to bide his time while Kendall Reyes was earning back-to-back first team All-Big East honors and creating havoc for opposing offensive lines before heading to the NFL as the San Diego Chargers' second-round draft choice.
But instead of pouting during his first four seasons at UConn - when he had a grand total of three tackles - Wirth listened, learned and kept working, knowing that when the opportunity finally presented itself, he would be up to the challenge.
"I've always been a guy that tries to be positive and I don't like to dwell on the negative, especially things that I can't control," Wirth said Tuesday. "I just wanted, honestly, to have a role on the team. That's all I wanted. Being backup to those guys (Reyes and Twyon Martin), I really learned so much, and that's what's got me to now."
Which brings us to the present. The fifth-year senior has not only provided a fiery presence inside, he's a major reason why the Huskies are ranked third nationally in total defense and are allowing a mere 51.0 rushing yards per game.
Wirth has 14 tackles, including a career best six in last Saturday's 24-21 win at Maryland, and has provided stability at a position where redshirt freshman Julian Campenni starts next two him and both reserves behind them are redshirt sophomores.
"He's well built and well-suited for the position," UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said as the Huskies began preparing for Saturday's non-conference game at Western Michigan (2 p.m., no TV). "He's elevated his game. He's a fifth-year senior, he's starting, and he's taken real ownership of this thing."
Wirth credits Reyes for helping prepare him for this moment.
"Kendall practiced so hard and I kind of embodied that as well," he said. "And you know what? It rubs off. When you see them having success, everybody wants to practice hard. He just never took a play off, whether it be practice or games.
"When you start getting success, you think some guys might start getting complacent, but Kendall never changed. He just kept working and getting better."
It's all part of the maturation process, something Wirth admits he probably wasn't ready for as a high school senior in Medford, N.J.
"When I was a kid it took me a little while for that light bulb to go on," Wirth said with a smile.
He couldn't pass the NCAA Clearinghouse and qualify for college academically, but he did have an "in" at Cheshire Academy, where his aunt, Dr. Sandra Wirth, was headmaster.
"She gave me an opportunity," said Wirth, who left New Jersey for Connecticut in 2007. "I didn't know much about UConn before that, but I started watching them on TV, and that was when they beat South Florida, who was ranked like No. 12, and it looked like it was an exciting, building program."
During his one season at Cheshire, he also qualified academically.
"After a couple of games Coach (Randy) Edsall came down and it was nice," Wirth said. "I came up for a visit, the facilities were like No. 1 in the country, and it was exciting. It was program that was growing and I got excited about that. I knew this was going to be home."
After helping the Huskies beat their former coach last week, Wirth's goal is simple: lead UConn (2-1) back to a bowl game.
"(When) you come here you want to start," he said. "You want to play and do well. You just don't know when that's going to be. I'm happy to be where I am right now and I'm happy to have the opportunity."
Smallwood, Williams feted
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Yawin Smallwood as named the Football Writers Association of America/Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week, the Chuck Bednarik Defensive Player of the Week, and the ECAC Defensive Player of the Week. He made 14 tackles in Saturday's 24-21 win over Maryland.
Senior returner Nick Williams was named the ECAC Player of the Week. He accounted for 112 all-purpose yards, including a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown, in the Maryland win.