The Oklahoman's Super 30: Tahlequah's Eli McWilliams seized opportunity, committed to Tulsa

TULSA — Eli McWilliams couldn’t help but smile when asked how he got to where he is athletically. 

“This is the best,” McWilliams said. “I’ll never forget this story.”

In the first round of the playoffs, Tahlequah knew it would have to make changes to stop Chris McClellan, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive lineman at Tulsa Edison. 

But for McWilliams, who didn’t play offense, McClellan’s defensive presence didn’t affect McWilliams' individual duties much. However, it did bring more attention to the game.

“They had (college) recruiters in the stands watching him,” McWilliams said. 

McWilliams took full advantage of the opportunity. He recorded 11 tackles, two for loss in Tahlequah’s 34-29 win in the first round of the Class 5A state playoffs. McWilliams' performance caught the eye of an Oklahoma State recruiter who took video.

“That’s when all the college coaches started talking to me,” McWilliams said, “and I just blew up after that.”

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McWilliams is No. 26 on The Oklahoman’s Super 30 rankings of the state’s top high school recruits in the 2022 class. As a linebacker, McWilliams is committed to Tulsa, where he’ll live out his dream of playing Division-I football. But his journey isn’t so straightforward. It took a growth spurt, a new school, a position switch and some luck to find his full potential.

Tahlequah's Eli McWilliams  is No. 26 on The Oklahoman’s Super 30 rankings of the state’s top high school recruits in the 2022 class.

“I’ve always been good at football,” McWilliams said. “But I was always one of the kids that was skinny everywhere but had a chunky stomach. I was just an awkward-looking kid.”

In middle school, as much as he wanted to play collegiate football, McWilliams didn’t think he had the chance with his size. He stood at 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds – which he believed was too small of a starting point to grow into a collegiate-sized player.

“I’m going to tech school to be a welder,” McWilliams told his father. His father, Gary, agreed with his decision. His father went to high school with Pro Football Hall of Famer Ed Reed and seen the size that was needed to excel in the sport. McWilliams didn’t have it.

At least not yet. 

McWilliams hit his first growth spurt during his freshman year at Jenks High School. Standing at 5-foot-10, 170-pounds, he became hopeful about his collegiate dream.

“I was like I might be able to go D-2,” McWilliams who was playing defensive back at the time said. 

But he wasn’t done growing. After moving in with his father in Tahlequah, McWilliams hit another growth spurt, improving to 6-foot-2, 220-pounds. His newfound size was a wake-up call for him and his father.

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“You can go to college,” Gary exclaimed. “I think you can be a college football player!”

McWilliams play “took off.” He moved from defensive back to middle linebacker at his new school, becoming the leader of a group of guys he’d just met. But it didn’t take long for him to get comfortable. 

“They brought me in great,” McWilliams said of his Tahlequah teammates. “Now, I got some best friends I’ll do anything for. I became a real good leader on that team and it’s just because of them.” 

As the leader of the Tahlequah defense last season, McWilliams recorded 78 tackles, seven for loss, three sacks and one interception in his new role and position to lead Tahlequah to the second round of the Class 5A state playoffs. 

Although McWilliams' father doesn’t let his son's success get to his head. 

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“(He's) a military dad,” Eli McWilliams said. “So, he’s hard on me all the time. He just pushes me and he always tell me, ‘you got to do better.’ So, every single game no matter how good I did, 15 tackles it doesn’t matter, he always has something that I didn’t do right. And it’s just made me better as a football player. I thank him a lot for that.”

Gary shows Eli videos of great football players working out to demonstrate how hard his son has to work in order to reach the NFL. 

It’s the type of encouragement that allows Eli McWilliams to take advantage of the opportunities given to him –– such as having a breakout game in front of college scouts. 

“'That’s what you’ve got to do to be that great,'” Eli recalled his father telling him. “I just took it and ran with it.”

Eli McWilliams Junior Season

The Oklahoman’s 2022 Super 30

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