Utah State senior defenders have faced adversity head on

LOGAN, Utah – In the professional sports world, deals are constantly being made for different players, offering a set amount of money or different personnel packages for a particular person or situation. While that same philosophy is not practiced in collegiate athletics, one pair of Utah State players made their way to Logan as part of a package deal.

In 2009, the Utah State coaching staff made its way to Miami Jackson High School in Miami, Fla. They were there to meet with coaches about a wide receiver named Rashard Stewart. As they watched Stewart’s highlight reel, the next player to come up, linebacker Tavaris McMillian, also caught their attention.

By the end of the trip, both Stewart and McMillian had offers on the table to be a part of the Utah State program. The next summer, both left their homes in south Florida and found themselves in northern Utah.

For McMillian, the decision to come to Utah State was sort of a blind one. It was unfamiliar territory and not something he’d ever considered.

“I didn’t know where Utah State was or that it was even Division I. I started looking into it and from there it became the perfect thing to do,” McMillian said. “I wanted to get away from home regardless, so it all worked out. I didn’t even take a visit.”

The defensive duo knew the Utah State program had been struggling, but when the coaching staff presented their plans and goals for the coming years, they were on board.

“I believed in what Coach (Gary) Andersen was saying. He told me that the program was up-and-coming and that they were going to get better,” McMillian said. “I believed every word he told me and to this day, nothing he said has failed me.”

The move from Miami to Logan came with quite the shock and change of scenery. However, Stewart says the change was good for him and keeps him driven and concentrated.

“What gets us to stay here is how slow the city is. It’s a total change from Miami. It makes you focus. That’s our ambition,” Stewart said. “Logan puts us in a box and makes us stay hungry. South Florida kids like coming back home to Logan.”

Once they were in Logan, the two had differing paths. McMillian took a redshirt for his first season, while Stewart jumped in to see immediate action. He played some at receiver, but the coaches gave him a shot on the defensive side of the ball and found that to be a better fit. Stewart was redshirted the next season and used that time to perfect his craft as a cornerback.

“It kind of threw me off, to be honest, but God does things for a reason. Coach Andersen probably felt like I wasn’t ready. God moves in mysterious ways,” Stewart said. “That redshirt year was when I moved to cornerback from receiver. That’s what that redshirt was for. I was able to really stabilize my position.”

By the 2012 season, both Stewart and McMillian were back in the game, seeing significant playing time and making their contributions.

After years of changes and challenges on and off the field, things continued to get complicated for McMillian during the 2013 season. Midway through the year, he was sidelined with a shoulder injury that required surgery. As he worked to recover and get back to action, his doctors decided his career needed to be over and he was declared medically ineligible.

“It was already in my head, I knew it was a possibility. The doctors told me initially that there was a chance I wouldn’t get cleared,” McMillian said. “I started thinking about doing stuff ahead of them as a backup plan. I want to help guys buy into the program from the stuff I know already. It’s all working out. I’m here helping out the young guys with their playbooks, going through drills and steps. I’m an extra body who has both the coaching and player’s perspectives.”

After all the work and dedication he had given to the program, the Utah State coaches were anxious to keep McMillian involved somehow.

“He’s made the best of a tough situation. Anytime your career is over, it’s a hard thing to come to grips with. All of our careers ended at some point, you just don’t want one to have to end with eligibility left. Unfortunately for him, that’s what happened. He did everything he could from a physical and medical standpoint to give himself a chance to come back. We all have to move on in life,” said head coach Matt Wells. “He was a part of the group that helped change the culture of this program. He understands what Utah State football is all about. He knows how we train, how we act, the way we play and the effort that we need to give in the classroom and on the field. He’s just a great example to our players of what this thing is all about.”

McMillian has accepted his challenges and made the most of them. Rather than get down or frustrated by the difficult things in life, he has spun them in a positive light and is looking to apply the lessons he’s learned in the future.

“Adversity is going to strike wherever,” he said. “I had two shoulder injuries. I’ve been far away from home. I can get through whatever it is. I can carry on just fine outside of football.”

Stewart is experiencing challenges of his own this season as he is in the position group that saw significant turnover from the past. As the most experienced member of the team in his position, there are expectations for him to step up as a leader and a player.

“Rashard is my veteran in the corner room. He brings juice and energy, that’s just the type of young man he is. He keeps the meetings and practice lively. He brings that veteran leadership,” said defensive passing game coordinator and cornerbacks coach Kendrick Shaver. “I’ve got so many new guys in our room, and he has taken them under his wing to show them the ropes.”

As they’ve gone through their Utah State careers, McMillian and Stewart have learned a lot about themselves and working with others. They’ve each had their own tastes of adversity and are striving to get through it and become better because of it.

“One thing I learned is that you have to stay consistent and keep that fire,” Stewart said. “It’s hard, keeping all the factors on the upbeat. Just stay with it, and things will work themselves out.”

As both players wrap up their collegiate and academic careers this fall, receiving bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, the adversity they have had to deal with and overcome during their time at Utah State will only benefit them in their future endeavors.

– USU –

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