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Gators expecting much improved play from healthy McWilliams this season

By Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida running back Iverson Clement (24) is tackled by defensive back C.J. McWilliams (12) during the 2019 Orange and Blue Game.

The release of Florida’s depth chart was scrutinized and analyzed extensively within seconds of its delivery Monday, and it didn’t take long for one name to jump off the page. 

Listed as Florida’s starter at the Star/nickelback position was defensive back C.J. McWilliams, the redshirt senior who missed the 2019 season with a torn Achilles tendon.

By all accounts last season, McWilliams had a strong offseason before his season-ending injury in Fall camp after his two prior years with the Gators were marked by moments of on-the-field struggles –– which led a vocal portion of the fanbase to voice their disdain loudly, and often in McWilliams’ direction. 

With McWilliams sidelined, the role in 2019 fell primarily on sophomore defensive back and fellow Georgia native Trey Dean, who would make six starts for UF last season while moving around the backfield. Dean, who last week had his “best scrimmage” at the safety position according to safeties coach Ron English, is likely to help out at multiple positions rather than lock down a set role, meaning the Star role has been ripe for the picking this offseason. 

As McWilliams prepares for one final go around with the Gators, his teammates and coaches alike have emphasized he’s done all he can to lock down the job, resulting in the starting nod heading into Saturday’s showdown with Mississippi. 

“C.J. is a guy that, quite honestly, he's kind of always gotten hurt when you kind of look at it, he’s not been able to finish. And to the guy’s credit, the guys really busted his tail, he's worked hard. He's been healthy through this whole thing,” Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “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." 

In his first two seasons in Gainesville, McWilliams seemed to earn a reputation –– justified or not –– for getting beat in man coverage, often drawing criticism from the fanbase and leading his teammates to come to his defense on social media. 

The scrutiny peaked in 2018, when starting cornerback CJ Henderson went down midway through Florida’s rivalry match-up with Georgia, leading to McWilliams coming on the field in a relief role. What ensued appeared to many as if the ’Dawgs were picking on the inexperienced McWilliams in the passing game, and Georgia would eventually roll to a 36-17 win. 

Anyone thinking McWilliams’ talent level was on full display in that contest couldn’t be more naive, said Gators standout tight end Kyle Pitts. 

“C.J. is a guy that people kind of overlooked, I feel like, after that Georgia game. Everybody was just bashing him, but that’s not the real C.J. The real C.J. is how he’s playing now, 100 percent,” Pitts said. “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, the first game, everybody is going to be kind of shocked seeing him out there making plays.”

If McWilliams does display the true nature of his ability this season, it will be another reminder for fans and analysts alike that small glimpses of a player often don’t tell the full story –– ultimately, it’s the opinion of those inside the program that matter. And if you ask them, they expect the external perception to align with the internal optics once the season commences. 

"Everybody goes out and executes. It's for the coaches to evaluate and all that kind of stuff,” Florida linebacker Ventrell Miller said. “So, I just go out there and I know whoever I go out there with, I'm trusting those guys. They worked hard and everything and I know they're going to do their job."