You probably noticed LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was deadly accurate early last Saturday against the Gators defense. His only incompletion in the first quarter came on a fade route to the corner of the end zone that floated just out of the reach of receiver Justin Jefferson. His six completions went for 78 yards and set the Tigers up with the game’s opening score.
Burrow connected on two screen passes, but his other four completions all went in the direction of redshirt sophomore cornerback C.J. McWilliams, who started his first game of the season that day. He gave up a 38-yarder on the first play from scrimmage and a 7-yard slant pass on 3rd-and-6 in the red zone. Burrow’s lone incompletion also targeted McWilliams.
Nothing was physically wrong with usual starter Trey Dean. He wasn’t dealing with any suspension. In fact, Dean came in at the start of LSU’s fourth drive and wasn’t targeted until five minutes remained in the half.
So why did the 5-foot-11 McWilliams get his first start of the season over the 6-foot-3 Dean? After all, Dean started all three games since Marco Wilson’s injury against Kentucky. He also finished out that game after Wilson’s early departure.
If you believe defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, McWilliams showed coaches enough during the week to earn the start.
“It’s just preparation, practice,” Grantham said on Monday. “We’re going to play guys relative to how they perform in practice and how they’re doing. It’ll be, this week, the same way. You earn your reps through practice, so we’ll continue to do that.”
However, if you believe rumblings from fans on Twitter, it’s because Dean got himself into Grantham’s “dog house.” I dunno if I buy that, as Dean came back onto the field in the first half against LSU and played a good game.
I can’t say for certain whether McWilliams had a great week of practice leading up to LSU. All we know is what goes down on Saturdays.
So what has McWilliams done in games? The answer isn’t entirely shocking, considering what we all saw against the Tigers. He gave up two completions on Mississippi State’s third drive a couple of weeks ago in his only other significant playing time.
He didn’t start that game. He was rushed into service after Dean was ejected for targeting in the first quarter. He gave up one more completion in the third quarter for 11 yards.
To be clear, I’m not calling McWilliams a bad corner. He’s still learning a new defense and is a little undersized for the physical play Grantham demands of his corners. But the Gators’ decision to play the inexperienced redshirt sophomore gave Burrow a clear No. 1 option of attack from the first snap Saturday.
Morgan McMullen is the sports editor at The Alligator. Follow him on Twitter @MorganMcMuffin and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cornerback C.J. McWilliams (right) earned the first start of his career Saturday against LSU. He gave up a pair of catches on the Tigers' first drive and was replaced by freshman Trey Dean later on.