Back From a Broken Neck and Better Than Ever
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this All-American is making up for lost time.
By Matt Foley
Mike Williams hangs in the air — and 80,000 Clemson faithful hold their breath, bracing for impact. Williams anticipated the pass from his quarterback perfectly, but in this airborne moment, his fans are negotiating with the football gods: After all, the wide receiver just came back from a full year on the mend. Would it be justice for him to face a walloping so soon after his resurrection?
Sometimes, the football gods are merciful. Williams plants his right leg, stiff-arms a defender and pirouettes into a full-on sprint, racing up the sideline with five defenders on his trail. “This man is lighting up the Auburn secondary!” booms legendary broadcaster Brent Musburger on an ESPN telecast.
At this exact moment last year — the first game of the 2015 season — Williams was immobilized in an ambulance, en route to a local South Carolina hospital. He’d leapt for a touchdown catch in back of the end zone and was pushed from behind, careening headfirst into the goalpost. The fracture in his neck did not paralyze him, but Williams missed the entire season and began a grueling recovery process while attending classes and serving as an additional coach for Clemson.
Last year was supposed to be Wililams’ swan song, another year of dominance before leaving school early for professional glory. In his sophomore year, Williams led the Tigers to a 10-3 record with 57 receptions, over 1,000 yards and 6 touchdowns. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder became a favorite of NFL scouts, flashing the size, speed (Williams runs a sub-4.5 40-yard dash) and skill set that make football folks salivate.
Without Williams, the Tigers ran through regular-season competition, riding an undefeated record to the College Football Playoff. They eventually lost the championship game to powerhouse Alabama, but, even in defeat, the run established Clemson as a premier college football force. With Williams on the sideline, Clemson’s secondary wideouts shined. Two seasons ago, only Williams and Artavis Scott recorded more than 30 receptions, but last year, five receivers did. Coach Dabo Swinney’s equal opportunity spread offense became the nation’s most potent attack and now, with their star receiver back healthy alongside Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Deshaun Watson, Clemson has picked up right where it left off.
In his 2016 debut, that Week 1 matchup with SEC foe Auburn, Williams went off for 9 catches and 174 yards. His steady production has continued all season. Clemson is currently 9-1, ranked fifth in the nation and in the running for a return to the four-team playoff. Williams ranks second in the ACC in receiving yards with 956, and while his touchdown count (6) is hardly astronomical, that total can be attributed to a wildly balanced offense. The scouts, once again, have taken notice. His mere presence on the field is a problem for defenses.
ESPN analyst and legendary college head coach Mack Brown calls Williams a “matchup nightmare,” noting that Clemson’s excellent run game “forces teams to decide whether to ‘stack the box’ or double-team Mike on the outside.” Loading up to stop the run leaves defensive backs with the brutal task of going one-on-one with the nation’s best receiver. “If you do that, he’s going to beat you,” says Brown. “He reminds me of another lanky, strong guy I coached at Texas — Roy Williams.” Williams was drafted seventh overall in 2004.
So what’s next for college football’s best comeback story? After starting the season 9-0, Clemson took its first loss last week, a 43-42 upset from unranked Pittsburgh. Williams was dominant again, snatching 15 balls for 200 yards and a touchdown. The Tigers are still likely to make the playoffs, where a rematch with Alabama could await — a chance for Williams to prove that he really was last season’s missing link. Outcome regardless, a first-round draft pick — the thought of which Williams couldn’t comprehend while strapped to that damn stretcher 14 months ago — is all but guaranteed. “He’s even better this year after coming back,” says NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah. “That program pumps out great professional receivers — DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant — and Williams is next.”