Noah Wilder was just a name on the roster when he joined the UAB football program in 2018.

He was a walk-on player who spent a year at Gardner-Webb as a redshirt linebacker. He wasn’t particularly big, 6-foot, 220 pounds, and wasn’t part of a depth chart.

That covers the view from outside the program.

Inside the program, though, it was a different story. Veteran players quickly noticed the way he practiced. Defensive coordinator David Reeves said, for him, it didn’t take more than one practice to notice something special from the new walk-on.

“He walked on the field the first day, and you saw he was an effort guy, you saw he was really going to bring it, whether it was on scout team, whether it was in a drill, whether it was in a team setting,” Reeves said.

Bryant Vincent, the team’s offensive coordinator at the time, stood on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage, marveling at the way this walk-on linebacker embraced life on the scout team.

“He showed up and was just this guy that came to practice every day with a unique mentality,” said Vincent, now the Blazers’ head coach. “He wanted to be on the scout team. He wanted every single rep on the scout team. You’re looking at, sometimes, 80-90-100 snaps a day, throughout the course of a day. He never wanted to come out. Our offensive line in 2018 was really good and we ran counter a lot. He got pulled on and lit up a lot. He’d just take it over and over and over. He earned the team’s and the coaches’ respect that year. I would go into the staff meetings and I’d tell the coaches, ‘Noah Wilder is going to play for us some day, boys, because there’s something about him. He’s got ‘it’.'”

Fast forward to his final year in a UAB uniform. Wilder has grown to a 6-foot-1, 240 pounds and is probably the team’s most dependable defensive player. He started 35 of the 36 games over the past three seasons and had 226 career tackles heading into the season opener. In three games this season, Wilder has 34 tackles, which leads Conference USA and he has the national fourth best 11.3 tackles per game. Eighteen of those tackles came last week in a win over Georgia Southern, and Wilder was honored as the C-USA Defensive Player of the Week.

“I always play with a chip on my shoulder,” Wilder said. “I never want to lose that. I feel like the day you lose your fire is the day you lose your passion for the game. That’s never left me from the moment I was a little kid.”

Josh Wright, Wilder’s head coach at Bessemer Academy, said he was fortunate to coach his former star in high school. Wilder spent three years at Bessemer Academy and started all three of those years. His defensive totals are staggering — 552 tackles and 45 tackles for loss in 40 games. He was part of teams that played in three AISA 3A state championship games with title game victories in the final two.

“Seems like he made every tackle,” said Wright, whose brother, Jody, is a former UAB assistant coach and now an assistant at South Carolina. “I’ve been coaching about 20 years, coached at Jacksonville State, West Alabama, Bessemer Academy, now at Tuscaloosa Academy; he’s probably the best football player I’ve ever coached. I’m not saying the best athlete, but the best football player. Instincts, leadership, just everything you want.”

In 2015, Bessemer Academy had 28 seniors with 13 of those seniors going on to play college football, according to Wright. Wilder was a junior on that team but, Wright said, was also the unquestioned leader on a senior laden team.

“He’s got a natural presence about him,” Wilder said. “It’s like a general. He doesn’t have to say a lot, everybody just respects him because of his work ethic and how he carries himself."

Yet, the recruiting attention was sparse.

“I tried not to get worked up about it because I believe everything happens for a reason,” Wilder said. “I believe God has a plan for everybody. I always kind of knew I had a harder route picked for me, that was okay. I knew if I work hard, do what I’m supposed to do then everything will take care of itself.”

A year at Gardner-Webb reinforced something he believed all along. He belonged at UAB.

“My mom graduated from UAB,” Wilder said. “It being 30 minutes from my hometown, it was a big deal growing up. I’m big on family. I’m real close to my family. Just being back home and allowing my grandparents, brother and all them have a chance to watch me play was a big deal to me. I’ve always loved UAB, growing up right down the road. I always thought it would be awesome to play here. With a lot of prayer and a lot of meditating on it, I felt like it was the right decision for me to come here. I couldn’t be more blessed.”

He didn’t show up at UAB just to show up. He arrived with a plan, one with no shortcuts. He wanted there to be no doubt he belonged. He treated every practice and every scout team rep like a game. He relished going against the physical offensive linemen.

“Those groups of guys they were big and tough, but they were good guys,” Wilder said. “There’s a lot of times where guys don’t want to be that Scout Team All-American. It wasn’t that I did it a play here and a play there, I did it every play. They kind of knew what to expect. I told them, if you got to hit me, hit me. That’s just what it is, I understand. With that, they grew a type of respect for me and I had a respect for them.”

In 2019, his role drastically changed. Surprisingly, at least to people outside the program, he was the starter by the first game of that season. He’s never left the lineup but he has improved tremendously. His first year, he was more of a downhill linebacker with limited coverage skills.

“Early on, it was a bunch of effort, it was a bunch of bad intentions and a bunch of physicality with not a lot of linebacker skills,” Reeves said. “The reason you see his tackles going up so much is because of his footwork, because of his eyes and because of his understanding of what it takes to play that position. I’m proud of how much he’s grown.”

If Wilder keeps on his current tackle pace, he could leave in the top three in career tackles for a UAB defender. He is currently 10th on the list but could possibly move up two or three spots when the Blazers return to the field on Oct. 1 at Rice. He is also one of the early C-USA Defensive Player of the Year candidates.

All of that is noise to Wilder, who didn’t know he was fourth in the country in tackles per game until being told during the interview for this story. He just wants to soak in his final college football season and help his team win games.

“As long as I work hard, I know that whatever outcome it is, that’s what was intended,” said Wilder, who has graduated and is now working on a Master’s degree in education. “That’s my faith. I knew that God would put me where I need to be. As it happened, I was more in awe of how God put a small town kid like me and put him on a stage like this. I’m from a small Alabama town, kids where I’m from dream of playing at a place like this. It’s just a blessing to be able to play here. That’s the biggest surreal moment right now.”

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