I’ll admit, I never thought CJ McWilliams would play another significant down for the Florida Gators football team.
His 2018 campaign in relief of the injured Marco Wilson was spotted by inexcusable plays and coverage that quarterbacks always targeted. It culminated in a performance against the Georgia Bulldogs where Jake Fromm picked on McWilliams all day and won every single time.
McWilliams was hurt in camp before the start of the 2019 season and spent the entire year on the sideline in a boot.
As such, there’s not much we remember about CJ McWilliams other than that Georgia game and the inept coverage leading up to the 2x4 that broke the camels back. When his name did come up with fans, it was a visceral reaction to the 2018 painful memories and a thankfulness that he might not see the field again. And like I admitted, I didn’t think he ever would see the field again.
So imagine the surprise when the Gators released the depth chart for Saturday’s 2020 season opener and McWilliams was not only on the two-deep, he was listed as a starter…at STAR (nickel) which is widely considered the position held for the most talented and versatile defender on the roster.
Head Coach Dan Mullen described the STAR as, “we need somebody that, obviously the more you can do, very much like that utility guy on offense, the more you can do the better you are at that position, and I don't have to sub a lot of different guys, right?
“So, you want somebody that is a great cover guy, that can be physical at the point of attack, that can rush off the edge. But those guys, you know, they're kind of unicorns, right? You got to go try to find them, and there's not a lot of them out there. You do see one, and it's a pretty special deal, you've got to be excited that you have one."
Is that CJ McWilliams?
I hope so.
I hope he proves me wrong. I hope CJ McWilliams comes out on Saturday and shuts everyone up, myself included.
That’s one of the greatest things about sports. They are a shot for redemption, a second chance, an opportunity to write a new story. For months—years even—I thought the story on CJ McWilliams was over. There was nothing else to learn.
But now McWilliams has the opening to add a new chapter and rewrite his ending. It starts by acknowledging the Georgia game.
Tight end Kyle Pitts, who must work against McWilliams in practice, said this of his teammate’s current Gator legacy.
“C.J. is a guy that people kind of overlooked, I feel like, after that Georgia game. I feel like, after that Georgia game. Everybody was just bashing him, but that’s not the real C.J…I think it’s pretty tough on him because just allowing him — throwing that off of one game.”
So who is the real C.J.?
Pitts says it’s someone who can do “everything.”
“The real C.J. is how he’s playing now, 100 percent. He’s sticking, he’s hitting people hard in the open. He can guard. He can do everything that when he came here he’s doing now. I think, like I said, first game, everybody going to be kind of shocked seeing him out there making plays.
“So, when he got a chance to bounce back, he's been doing nothing but just pinning his ears back and going for it now, looking at the pass.”
Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham tips his hat to McWilliams, who he says has fought back hard from his injury to earn the role he’s now being given.
“To the guys credit, the guy's really busted his tail, he's worked hard. He's been healthy through this whole thing. He's, he's really done what we've asked, he's done a nice job so he'll be a part of our, you know, our roster, our players and he'll be able to contribute to what we do. He's really earned it. He's done a good job of making himself into a guy that we feel that we can count on in certain situations."
Those certain situations will undoubtedly come up on Saturday as Lane Kiffin targets the DB who hasn’t played in over a year. When that happens, I genuinely hope CJ McWilliams shines. It’s going to be a heck of a story if he does, and one I’ll be happy to tell.