The 2018 football season has been one of redemption for Grambling junior cornerback Joe McWilliams, and it hasn’t been a smooth ride.

One of the heroes of Grambling’s national championship team in 2016, McWilliam’s career sank like a stone with academic ineligibility sidelining him for 2017. When he reported for fall camp in August there was no certainty he would arrive where he sits today.

As he prepares for Saturday’s 45th Bayou Classic, McWilliams is entrenched as one of the Tigers’ defensive playmakers. The former Southern Lab Kitten will try to make it four consecutive victories against his hometown Jaguars at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“This is big for me,” said McWilliams, who grew up walking distance from the Southern campus and played in the 2016 Classic.

“I’m excited about it playing with my boys from BR. No doubt we are going to go out and ball, put it 100 percent on the line.”

Four weeks ago, McWilliams wasn’t so sure. He didn’t return to the team until the start of fall camp and he had a new position coach, Del Lee-Collins, to adjust to. But he’s played in nine of 10 games, and, after regaining his starting job three games ago, he leads the team with four interceptions, one in each of the past four games, and is tied for the lead in passes defensed with seven. Of his 27 tackles, 23 are solos.

He's also blocked two punts, giving him six blocked kicks for his career. Against Alabama A&M, he returned an interception 20 yards for a touchdown and added two points on a defensive extra point. That earned him SWAC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

“Joe has been exceptional for us,” Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs said. “He’s a great player. He’s back to form, playing well. His head is where it’s supposed to be, and he’s been coached well.”

But it hasn’t been easy. He sat in the stands and watched the 2017 season unfold as the Tigers returned to the Celebration Bowl, losing to North Carolina A&T. He watched the spring game from the sideline and missed out on summer workouts while he hit the books and study halls like he wanted to hit opposing ballcarriers.

McWilliams said he simultaneously grew up and learned a lot about himself through the ordeal.

“I had to change a lot in my life,” he said. “Taking football away made me realize how much I loved it and how much my team needed me. It really hurt to sit there and watch my team last year, watching the national championship, and seeing my team not come out with the ‘W’ when I could have been out there helping.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve done, a tough road to go through. I had to make major adjustments and to do it with no problem to show how much I was in control of my life and what I’m capable of.”

McWilliams is on track to graduating in December 2019. But with football, he had to start from scratch with Lee-Collins.

“We had some work to finish up early in the season,” Lee-Collins said. “It was important for him to get things in order academically to help himself out. From there it progressed. He broke the starting lineup and the rest is history.

“He’s really excelling with his awareness, tackling and being where he needs to be out there. Joe’s a very smart player, one of the best with having field awareness.”

That awareness is part of a natural instinct for blocking kicks that put his name in Grambling lore. He became the hero in 2016 HBCU national title victory against North Carolina Central when he blocked an Eagles’ extra point attempt with 2:14 left to preserve the 10-9 victory.

“I came in clean and was so ahead of the ball, my arms went past and the ball hit me in the face mask,” he said. “It was my biggest moment as a Tiger; the biggest of my life.”

It could easily have been as a Jaguar. McWilliams grew up listening to Southern games on the radio, playing high school ball in A.W. Mumford Stadium and dreaming of playing in the Bayou Classic. Southern didn’t recruit him as hard as Grambling. Two of his high school coaches were former Grambling players and they steered him north.

McWilliams said he’s eager for the spotlight of the Bayou Classic, but is also excited that his family, friends, former teammates and coaches will have a chance to see him play. His family often can’t get to his games in North Louisiana.

“My brothers keep telling me I’d better not lose the game or they’re going to talk about me,” he said. “They root for the home team but they support me first. I can’t wait to get back out there.”