Mike Williams set himself apart a long time ago.
Long before he broke a vertabra at the base of his neck more than a year ago, the physical, 6-foot-3, 225-pound Clemson wide receiver with sticky hands showed he would carve a different path for himself.
He didn’t mind putting himself in rare company.
He told Nick Saban no.
“I remember going in Nick Saban’s office and him offering me a scholarship,” Williams said. “But I felt I was good enough to play anywhere.”
Williams was right. Instead of the next Julio Jones, Williams became the next Sammy Watkins or DeAndre Hopkins in his home state. The fourth-year junior has been more than good, joining the company of Watkins and Rod Gardner and becoming just the third player in school history to put up two 1,000-yard seasons.
Last year wasn’t one of them.
Expected to have a key role in Clemson’s 2015 season, Williams caught a short pass for a touchdown in the season opener against Wofford but slammed headfirst into the padding of the goalpost and remained on the turf for a long time. Finally, he was carted off the field. The injury didn’t require surgery, but he wore a neck brace to protect the fractured C-6 vertabra. His season was done.
Clemson’s wasn’t although the coaching staff sure had some doubts.
“I can remember at that point sitting there at halftime in the locker room, thinking (they’d go) 8-5,” Tigers co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Jeff Scott said, “trying to figure out where we were going to be because he was such a key part of our offense.”
Instead, the resilient Tigers rallied for a 14-1 record and came within a whisker of the school’s first national championship since 1981, falling short of the title in a 45-40 loss to the same Alabama team it faces Monday night. That Clemson came so close to upending the Crimson Tide was remarkable, considering it was without Williams as well as fellow receiver Deon Cain, who was suspended from the playoffs for failing a drug test.
Now both are back and give Tigers’ fans legitimate hope that 13-1 Clemson can claim its second title. Since no one runs on Alabama — the Tide has allowed only 15 total touchdowns this season — Dabo Swinney and his staff may have to concoct a creative passing game to dent what some consider the best defense in Crimson Tide history.
Starting with Williams would be smart since he’s had 90 catches for 1,267 yards and 10 of his 20 career touchdowns. He returned with 15 extra pounds of lean muscle, graduated with a sociology degree and is counting his blessings.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Williams said. “God doesn’t say oops.”
Neither does Williams with his sure, massive hands that require 4X gloves.
The Tide may not be quite as deep defensively as last year’s unit and played most of this season without star safety Eddie Jackson. But Saban’s gone to slightly lighter but quicker defensive linemen, and the results have been dramatic. Alabama has scored 15 times on non-defensive touchdowns — Ohio State was the next best with only seven — and the Clemson coaching staff wrestled with the decision whether or not to show the film to its players.
“That’s not the picture we want our guys to have,” Scott said. “Somebody in the room said, ‘They’ve watched it every week on SportsCenter.”
Where Alabama may be only slightly vulnerable is the secondary where the bigger Williams might have an edge with a couple of inches on cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who’s known more for his run support than his one-on-one coverage.
And Williams is hardly Deshaun Watson’s only target.
Cain has 14 career touchdowns on just 67 catches. Athletic tight end Jordan Leggett, whose maturity and new work ethic have transformed him from his early days when he gave himself the nickname of “Lazy Leggett,” has 18 scores. Artavis Scott is a two-time All-ACC receiver with 19 career scores and a school-record 242 catches.
Then there’s Hunter Renfrow — the small slot receiver and former high school quarterback, who looked so young back then that Scott thought he looked like a seventh grader — caught seven passes for 88 yards and two scores in last year’s title game and is great at exploiting matchups against slower linebackers. Renfrow calls the Tigers “extremely confident” and said “if we can correct the little things, we’ll be national champions.”
“You have to pick your poison,” Watson said. “Mike’s a different animal.”
He’s also a “difference-maker,” Scott said, and so talented, he’ll make a routine one-handed catch like Odell Beckham but also the tough catches in traffic. When he’s the target, those 50-50 balls usually become 90-10 balls in his favor.
“Mike has a unique ability in the one-on-one man situations versus some of the top corners to be able to still win those matchups because he’s a very physical guy,” Scott said. “Also he’s very flexible. Sometimes guys of his height have a little bit of stiffness. Mike has zero stiffness.”
And there’s no one Watson has more faith in than Williams, who is likely to be the first receiver selected in the first round of next spring’s NFL draft and should take that league by storm like Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins have.
“He’s gonna kill it (in the NFL),” Watson said. “Mike’s gonna be a superstar in the NFL. He’s gonna take it to another level.”
For now, he’ll try to take Clemson to a new level.
Clemson vs. Alabama, 7:15 p.m., ESPN