Ryan Dilworth said he’s always heard the whispers, the doubts, the reasons that his football career wouldn’t include a future, even though he was one of Union County’s most productive defensive linemen during his four years as a starter for the Porter Ridge program. However, those whispers now seem to revolve around just how good he can be when he begins his career at Wingate University this summer.
Most of the doubts surrounding Dilworth were a problem of unfair comparisons. Simply put, the game of football has gotten bigger and bigger, and nowhere has that transformation been more evident than with the game’s linemen. The rosters for big-time college football programs seem to resemble a Who’s Who of folk-story subjects. For example, a glance at the starting defensive line last season for the University of Alabama, which has really become the nation’s standard bearer over the past few seasons, showed each player standing at least 6 foot 3.
Dilworth, however, stands anywhere from 5-9 ½ – according to former Pirates coach Blair Hardin – to Dilworth’s self-reported 5-10. For many, the notion that Dilworth was simply too small to play football on the college level seemed to stand up to reason.
While there wasn’t anything Dilworth could do about his stature, he did have control over how he perceived it.
“I know my height is a problem, but I always knew God has a plan, and it came through,” he said. “It actively pushed me to work hard to prove people wrong. (People saying things such as), ‘He’s too short. He’s a good player, but he’s not going to get anywhere.’ It just pushed me harder and harder, (and I always thought to myself), ‘That day will come when I will make it.’”
In February, Dilworth’s dream came true when he signed a National Letter of Intent with Wingate, where he’ll join another Union County standout, Cuthbertson offensive lineman Zach Panek, on the Bulldogs’ roster as a freshman.
During his 10th-grade season, Dilworth collected 50 tackles, two sacks and a pair of interceptions. As an 11th-grader, he upped his totals to 55 tackles and six sacks before improving again as a senior, when he amassed 60 stops and eight sacks.
According to Hardin, who recently left Porter Ridge to take over at Morganton Freedom, Dilworth’s stats are made all the more impressive because he wasn’t really in a position to pile them up.
“Every single play, he was going to get double-teamed (by offensive linemen),” said Hardin. “He played (on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard), and he was going to battle with two guys on him the entire night. He was the anchor.”
Typically, defensive linemen are charged with one of two things: clogging up running lanes or rushing the passer. But the fact that Dilworth was able to do both was a testament to his preparation in the days leading up to games, said Hardin.
“He is so smart, and he watches tons of film,” Hardin said. “He was so smart at breaking down guards’ and centers’ tendencies.
“He knew before the ball was snapped whether it was a run or a pass play, or if a guard was pulling. He’s a student of the game. He used his intelligence to make him a complete player.”
Of course, bench pressing more than 370 pounds and squatting more than 600 doesn’t hurt, either, said Hardin, who added, “He’s by far the strongest kid in school history.”
“‘Rhino’ has always been his nickname,” said former Pirates defensive end Avery Worsham, who is headed to Cullowhee to play for the Western Carolina University program.
“He’s unstoppable. Nobody could push him back. He was always relentless.”
According to Wingate coach Joe Reich, players such as those at the University of Alabama are the outliers, somewhat-misleading tent stakes for a rule that hardly is hard and fast. Instead, many college programs rely on players closer to Dilworth’s stature.
“We’ve had success in the past with those interior guys that aren’t really tall – good, hard-nosed guys,” said Reich. “We’ve had some really good players that are undersized in there. He kind of fits that mold.”
Reich said the success surrounding Porter Ridge’s football team over the past two seasons, during which time the Pirates advanced to the Class 4A title game each year, attracted his coaching staff to the Pirates’ program. The fact that much of the team’s success seemed to be anchored by a strong defensive line made the trip from Wingate to Indian Trail even more enticing.
“Good defensive linemen are hard to find,” said Reich.
Because of that, finding recruits for those spots is a lot like police detective work – you’ve got to follow up on every lead. That brought the Bulldogs’ coaches to Dilworth.
“(The first question we had was), ‘Is he going to be big enough?’” said Reich of Dilworth. “When we watched him play and the way he played, he really hunkered down in there. He was doing all the things we were going to need him to do.”
Reich also said he thinks the Pirates’ team success makes Dilworth an even safer bet as a recruit.
“It certainly makes sense to take a guy that’s been to the last two state championship games who knows how to win,” Reich said. “Basically, those guys expect to win. (Plus), if they make it that far (in the playoffs), they must be getting good coaching, and they must be good players for the most part, and those are things that are advantageous for us.”
For Dilworth, judging a player on his height is a bit overblown, and he doesn’t take that stance just because he’s 5-10.
“I feel like it is a little bit,” Dilworth said. “You see (defensive linemen) that are 6-5, and offensive linemen are getting under them because they don’t like to bend. I think being not as tall gives you better leverage in the trenches. When it’s all said and done, if you’re too high, you’re going to get pushed back.”
Reich agreed and said that Dilworth’s current 280-pound frame could help him get on the field as a freshman.
“I think he’ll play fairly early,” said Reich, though the coach added that he hasn’t ruled out redshirting Dilworth if needed.
“It’s not like he’s a 6-4, 230-pound defensive tackle that has to put on muscle and get bigger. He’s already a fairly stout, muscular kid. I think we’re going to be pretty good next year, but the two spots we’re going to need a younger guy to step up is defensive line and offensive line. I think with (Dilworth), in particular, if he could step up, that will really help us out.”
Moving forward, Dilworth said his time at Porter Ridge prepared him well for his next challenge. He said he and his fellow seniors helped establish one of the state’s most successful programs with a blue-collar mentality that has built a strong reputation across the state, one that has allowed him to hush all the whispers about what he couldn’t do.
“I think (other teams) think about a relentless program (when they think of Porter Ridge),” said Dilworth. “What Coach Hardin left us with here is (the mind-set) to never stop working. If you’re not working hard, someone else is, and they’re coming for you.
“If you work hard and outwork everyone else, you can do whatever you want to do.”