McWilliams Has Found His Niche : College football: USC tight end had trouble deciding on a sport, then made progress after switching positions.


By the summer of 1993, tight end Johnny McWilliams couldn’t look back at much success in his first two seasons at USC.

In fact, he hadn’t played a down.

That’s hard to believe today, watching the 6-foot-5, 260-pound McWilliams flatten people on blocking assignments or outrun defensive backs on long touchdown receptions.

How could he have not been good enough to play?


Yet stardom came slowly for him, as it does for many prominent high school athletes who learn in college that size, speed and talent are often not enough.

Today, he’s a premier blocker and pass-catcher on the 6-1-1 Trojan team that faces Stanford on Saturday in the Coliseum.

In the summer of ’93, he said, his football career was turned around during a conversation in the Long Beach home of senior teammate Willie McGinest’s parents.

“We were watching TV, getting ready for training camp to start in a few days,” he said.

“I was going on and on about how disappointed I was that I hadn’t played. I was in a period of my life where I wondered if I’d made a mistake, choosing to play college football over basketball.

“I guess Willie got kind of tired of hearing all this, and he got in my face a little bit. He told me to take a long look at myself, to take some responsibility for my situation. He knew I’d never done any off-season work, and he asked me how bad I really wanted to play.

“So my attitude changed after that. For one thing, I got my diet under control. I weighed 270 then and wasn’t very strong. I got off red meat, fried foods and sodas, and my weight came down to 250. I got on a weights program and I’m at 260 now and much stronger.”

One of former Coach Larry Smith’s last acts was to switch McWilliams from wide receiver to tight end, advising him to decide if he wanted to be a good wide receiver or a great tight end.

For McWilliams, deciding which sport to play had been difficult enough.

At Pomona High, McWilliams, son of a retired Pomona school police officer, hit .400 and 17 home runs one season in baseball, was recruited by every Pacific 10 school to play basketball--a sport in which he so excelled that Pomona retired his number--and was a wide receiver/quarterback in football.

McWilliams formerly played the “H back” position in Coach John Robinson’s offense, meaning he was the tight end in motion. This season, he’s the “Y back,” lining up as the traditional tight end as a key blocker in USC’s running game.

He’s also one of the Trojans’ most dangerous receivers because opponents think of him as strictly a blocker on run plays when suddenly he’s catching a pass and scoring on a 38-yard play, as he did at Arizona on Sept. 23.

In that game, a 31-10 USC victory, McWilliams, a senior, showed why he’s projected as a high NFL draft pick.

For one thing, McWilliams in two years has gone from an ordinary blocker to an outstanding one.

“Learning to block well was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,” he said.

“I worked hard at it for a long time and made it a matter of personal pride.”

Said tight end coach David Robinson: “Mac has great physical power in his legs, and now he’s using his hands and arms on his blocks. He’s making contact on his blocks, driving people and staying on his blocks. The only disappointing thing is we haven’t gotten the ball more to him. He’s a unique athlete, 6-5, 260, and he has outstanding running speed.”

One also could make a case for McWilliams as USC’s “Mr. Touchdown.”

McWilliams, who caught 23 passes last season, has 16 catches this season, fourth on the team. But four of his catches have been for touchdowns. Only All-American wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who has 66 catches, has more touchdowns, five.

McWilliams’ average reception goes for 17.5 yards, three better than Johnson’s.

He’s an excellent counterpoint to Johnson, who is often double-teamed.

McWilliams may have had his career game at Arizona. Twice on run plays, he flattened Arizona’s Tedy Bruschi, who is on his way to an NCAA sack record.

On one play, he took out two Wildcats on Shawn Walters’ run that gained 14 yards. He knocked a defensive end into USC left offensive tackle John Michels, then went after the Wildcat middle linebacker and took him out of the play too.

McWilliams caught two passes for 52 yards in that game, one the 38-yarder that gave USC a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. In the 21-21 tie at Washington on Saturday, McWilliams scored the third-and-goal touchdown from the two with 33 seconds to go.

Typically, it was only his second reception of the day.