USC’s McWilliams emerges as steadying presence on defense

Travis Bell/SIDELINE CAROLINA

As Clemson ran up and down the field on South Carolina, the Gamecocks’ best cover cornerback could only watch.

Rico McWilliams sat out last year’s regular-season finale due to the effects of a severe concussion suffered when he was knocked out trying to make a tackle the week before against South Alabama. While it might have been a coincidence that USC’s defense played its worst game in weeks without one of its top contributors in the secondary, there’s no denying the key role the rising junior will play this coming season.

South Carolina’s youthful secondary came a long way over the course of last year, and perhaps no member of that defensive backfield improved more than McWilliams, who opened the 2014 campaign as a backup and finished it as an established starter. Over that span McWilliams emerged as the Gamecocks’ most active defensive back, getting better as the season went on and having perhaps his best game in the Independence Bowl.

Due to USC’s inability to mount a consistent pass rush last season, the secondary players were forced to find their footing in a hurry. McWilliams — who had all of one career tackle to his name entering the 2014 campaign — and freshman Chris Lammons, Al Harris Jr. and D.J. Smith all had to develop on the fly. That led to some rough moments, from which McWilliams certainly wasn’t immune.

But in a year when Lammons and Smith often showed their youthful impertinence, McWilliams more and more became a steadying presence. The Hampton, Ga., native was named USC’s most improved cornerback in the spring, when he was once again penciled as a starter on the depth chart. Coaches like his physical style, which they’ll need more of now that departed senior Brison Williams has moved on.

The USC secondary should be bolstered by the move of Jordan Diggs to safety, as well as the transition of the former spur linebacker position — manned by former safety T.J. Gurley — to a nickel back. But the leader should be the junior McWilliams, whose career-high six tackles in the Independence Bowl was followed by a solid spring, all of which portends better things to come.

USC Top 10:

Friday: No. 10 WR Deebo Samuel

Saturday: No. 9 LB Jordan Diggs

Sunday: No. 8 DB Rico McWilliams

Monday: No. 7