MAHONE: McWilliams will be back stronger and better at USC

Derrick Mahone

Derrick Mahone

Everything was going well for South Carolina freshman Rico McWilliams as the former Lovejoy standout was heading into preseason drills.

And then, the unthinkable happened.

McWilliams, who helped lead Lovejoy to its first state championship game last fall, went down with a knee injury in a non-contact drill. What was shaping up to be a promising first season in Columbia, S.C., now has the talented freshman on the sideline.

It is always sad to see an athlete’s season end with an injury. McWilliams, who had an electrifying smile and unquestionable work ethic, made the news even more unbearable.

McWilliams has had a big impression on his teammates in the short time that he has been a Gamecock. Upperclassmen on the South Carolina squad have seen great leadership potential in McWilliams, who always said “yes, sir” and “no, sir” when he addressed you.

It was the way that he carried himself around the team that made him a likable and respected person.

“I just want to recognize one of our future leaders, Rico McWilliams,” said South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, who is coming off nine months of rehab from an ACL injury. “My season, every time I go out there, that’s who I’ll think about because of the way he worked Monday through Saturday. He did everything he could. Not the player he was, but the way he treated me — he treated me with respect. I know he’s hurting right now, but I know he’ll get through it.”

And so does McWilliams’ former defensive coordinator at Lovejoy, Kevin Jones. He’s seen this before from McWilliams, a New Orleans transplant.

Midway through McWilliams junior season with Lovejoy, he tore his knee up.

It was his tireless work in rehab that made him even a better player. Although he didn’t participate in contact drills during the spring leading up to his senior season, colleges still made scholarship offers.

“He has that will to be great — not good, but great” Jones said. “His work ethic is off the charts. Everything you want in a kid, Rico has it.”

McWilliams commanded such respect from his teammates at Lovejoy that the coaches gave him a whistle during those spring practices and made him an honorary coach.

“The players would listen to him just as much as they would the coaches,” Jones said. “College coaches were impressed with that about Rico. Those college coaches were amazed with his leadership.”

McWilliams was expected to get a lot of playing time in the Gamecocks thin secondary, and he was going to be on special teams.

Now, he has to wait another year to fulfill his dream of playing big-time college football in the Southeastern Conference.

He also has another year to amaze the Gamecock coaches and players with his work ethic.

Derrick Mahone is the sports editor of the Clayton News Daily/Henry Daily Herald newspapers. He can be reached at dmahone@news-daily.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerrickMahone_.