From Neck Fracture to Clemson's Next 1st-Round WR: The Return of Mike Williams

Justin Ferguson@@JFergusonBRCFB National AnalystSeptember 6, 2016

Clemson WR Mike Williams
Clemson WR Mike WilliamsJoshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Excitement hung in the air in Clemson on the last day of February. The Tigers were opening spring practices, their first on-field action since taking Alabama down to the wire in the second College Football Playoff National Championship.

Energy levels were high. Pads were popping. Cleats were churning up the turf. Players all over the field were eager to get their 2016 season started.

But Mike Williams was nervous. He didn't want to hit the ground.

The last time that happened, he couldn't get back up. His career was almost taken away from him. The dreams of being the next superstar NFL receiver out of Clemson almost vanished with one jarring impact—a freak accident at the base of a Memorial Stadium goal post.

"I was hesitant," Williams told Bleacher Report. "I was scared to go down again."

But Williams knew the last step in his recovery from a freak neck fracture was falling to the turf again. He had to overcome that fear in order to get back to being the star receiver he was as a sophomore.

Williams took a leap of faith on Leap Day, the first practice of Clemson's 2016 spring camp, by inviting the contact he thrived on before his injury. He hit the ground at the Tigers' practice facility and then got up without a hitch.

The fear was gone. The recovery process was over. The old Mike Williams was back.

"Once I hit the ground for the first time, I regained a lot of my confidence," he said. "After that, it was just back to playing football again."

Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

Although Clemson's staff held him out of full-contact scrimmages, he got back to what he does best—flashing the skill set that makes him a star wideout and a dream pairing with Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Deshaun Watson.

He beat defensive backs in practice with his speed and dominated jump-ball battles with his 6'4" frame and sure hands. His routes were crisp. Nothing was holding him back anymore.

"Mike did everything," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney told Bleacher Report. "He did all the team passing drills, the seven-on-sevens, the one-on-ones. He did flips and dives and falling on the ground and all that type of stuff."

With his return, Williams has already reclaimed the buzz of 2014 that made him such a high-value NFL draft prospect. Bleacher Report NFL draft writer Matt Miller named him the No. 15 prospect in the 2017 class, calling him the "most NFL-ready receiver" with the "best hands" and the "best potential."

Those skills were on full display in Clemson's 2016 season opener against Auburn. Williams matched his career high with nine catches and set a new personal best with 174 yards. Physicality, catch radius, separation—everything was back at an elite level for Williams in Week 1.

Dane Brugler @dpbrugler

#Clemson WR Mike Williams showing off his beautiful body control and focus tonight. #NextLevel https://t.co/zudl46neF3

"He brings so much—his talent, ability to jump, catch, run routes, be physical at the line of scrimmage, just really more of his knowledge of the game," Watson told Bleacher Report. "He's just a freak athlete who loves to work, loves to compete."

Co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott compares getting Williams back for the 2016 season to Clemson making an early pick at this year's NFL draft. The Tigers have produced DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, elite first-round talents who left Clemson for the pros after three seasons. But Williams, heading into his fourth year at Clemson, is different.

"This is what it would have been like if Sammy Watkins or DeAndre Hopkins came back for their senior year," Scott told Bleacher Report. "That's what we're getting to see out of Mike Williams. I really believe that he has the potential to be just like those guys."

Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

After a solid freshman season in 2013, Williams became a bona fide star in 2014. The Vance, South Carolina, native took over the role as Clemson's No. 1 receiver in the wake of Watkins' departure to the NFL, recording 1,030 yards and six touchdowns.

"His sophomore year, I was really able to see Mike turn into a premier playmaker like some of the guys we've had in past years," Scott said. "He was able to get behind DBs in man coverage and also run really good routes. He could catch everything around him."

Williams' standout 2014 season finished with a nine-reception, 112-yard, one-touchdown performance in a Russell Athletic Bowl rout of Oklahoma. During spring ball, summer workouts and fall camp, Williams knew big things were ahead of him.

"I had a lot of goals set for that year, man," Williams said. "I wanted to have a great season and then take my game to the next level."

But all of Williams' NFL potential almost disappeared on the Tigers' first drive of the 2015 season.

On a 1st-and-goal play against FCS school Wofford, Williams shook a cornerback near the line of scrimmage and cut on a slant toward the middle of the end zone. Watson fired a high ball to Williams, who jumped to grab the touchdown before getting pushed from behind into the goal post.

This time, Williams was down, and he didn't get back up.

It was supposed to be an easy-money play in a tuneup game against an overmatched opponent. The payoff didn't go according to plan.

"It was actually kind of crazy because we practiced that play a lot," Williams said. "We knew that was going to work in that game. Nothing like that had ever happened. I never was that close to the goal post."

After colliding headfirst with the bottom of the post, Williams immediately rolled over in pain. He could move his legs, to the relief of everyone watching. But his head was completely still.

"I just thought I was just hurting from the impact," he said. "I hit that thing pretty hard. So at first, I just thought I was going to have a big bruise on my neck, be out a couple of weeks and then get right back at it."

The minor setback turned into a major one as the Clemson medical staff stayed on the field. The words Williams could remember hearing from those attending to him were frightening.

CLEMSON, SC - SEPTEMBER 5: Mike Williams #7 of the Clemson Tigers is tended to by the medical staff after being injured on a play during the game against the Wofford Terriers at Clemson Memorial Stadium on September 5, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Ph
Tyler Smith/Getty Images

"Once they said, 'We need to get the stretcher out,' a lot of things started to go through my mind," Williams said. "When they have to do that, it's never good. And after we got to the hospital, I heard them talking in the background, and it didn't sound good."

For a moment on the stretcher, Williams thought his football career was over. As Swinney would tell reporters later, anytime a player has any sort of neck injury, the situation is quite serious.

Fortunately for Williams, an MRI revealed only a small, non-career-threatening fracture in his neck. He was expected to miss the rest of the 2015 season, but a full recovery was certain. Williams attended classes on campus that next Monday and began a long, frustrating recovery process.

"I couldn't get any treatment or nothing," he said. "I just had to let it heal. I couldn't do much but just sit there for three or four weeks and not do a thing."

Williams resumed physical activity later in the year after several visits to a specialist. He did dumbbell curls to get his strength back. He jogged around the field during Clemson's practices.

His impact on Clemson's undefeated run to the national championship game had to come in a way he was unaccustomed to.

Richard Shiro/Associated Press

The injury forced Williams to watch Clemson's storybook season from a new angle. He could see things on the sidelines that the Tigers' wide receivers couldn't in the heat of the action.

"It's a completely different perspective that most players with his talent don't get the chance to really have," Scott said. "He used last year as best as he could to learn and see things from that perspective. Typically, he's out there every play. ... But he really helped our guys with what he saw from over there."

The presence of "Coach Williams" worked well for Clemson's offense. In 2014, only Williams and Artavis Scott recorded more than 30 receptions.

Last season, the Tigers had five different receivers—Scott, Charone Peake, Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow and tight end Jordan Leggett—catch at least 30 balls. A sixth, wideout Ray-Ray McCloud, had 29.

Dan Hope @Dan_Hope

#Clemson WR Mike Williams, sporting a neck brace, is out working with the team today. http://t.co/NtYeJDE7TC

Even with Williams out, the receiving group as a whole took a step forward as Watson put together a Heisman campaign.

"He's one of those guys who's going to make people around him better," Watson said. "The younger guys who just came in, he's going to be a great mentor for a guy like Deon Cain to teach him the ropes, show him how to actually play and prepare as a pro."

During his recovery process, Williams paid close attention to his quarterback. Watson had overcome his own injuries—a broken hand, a broken collarbone and a torn knee ligament—to put up award-winning numbers.

"Seeing [Watson] come back from his injuries and play as well as he did last year was big, and it made me feel like I could come back from my own injury and put up some of the best numbers any receiver has ever had here at Clemson," Williams said.

As Watson and Clemson continued their undefeated run to the No. 1 seed in the playoff, Williams was stuck in a tough spot. He was excited for his teammates but frustrated at his situation. He still feels like he could have been the difference between a Clemson win and a loss to Alabama in the national championship game.

"When I first started meeting with the specialists, they told me there was a chance that I could probably play the last couple games of the season," Williams said, his voice filled with emotion. "But it didn't happen. I really wanted to be out there with my teammates. I felt like I could have helped my teammates that night and gotten that W."

CLEMSON, SC - SEPTEMBER 27: Mike Williams #7 of the Clemson Tigers celebrates with Deshaun Watson #4 after scoring a touchdown during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Memorial Stadium on September 27, 2014 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Phot
Tyler Smith/Getty Images

When Williams was finally able to return to the field in late February, a familiar face was all smiles.

"The only person who was more excited than Mike when he got back to work the first day of practice was Deshaun Watson," Scott said. "It was great for him to look over there and see a veteran playmaker added back to the offense."

In 2014, Williams and Watson had only four games together as a healthy combo. After clicking with Williams in an overtime loss to Florida State, Watson earned his first career starts against North Carolina and North Carolina State. He immediately connected with Williams in a huge way:

Mike Williams + Deshaun Watson in 2014
Florida StateLoss (23-17)27236.00
North CarolinaWin (50-35)612220.32
NC StateWin (41-0)615525.82
South CarolinaWin (35-17)35919.70

"We really didn't play a lot together, but the times we did, the numbers speak for themselves," Williams said. "We both felt like we had a good connection during the few times we were out there together. And it's so much fun playing with him, man. I've never played with a quarterback like that. Seeing him every day and how he acts, it's an honor just to play with him."

As Clemson entered the 2015 season, the partnership of Watson and Williams was set to take off. The two stars had grown tight off the field.

"We're very close," Watson said. "We always hang out, go out to eat, play basketball, things like that. We're always chilling with each other."

But Williams' injury delayed that progress on the field for another year. And even though Watson was still a Heisman finalist in the Tigers offense, he found himself playing the what-if game with his good friend.

"The whole time I was out, he was always telling me, 'I wish I had you out there, man,'" Williams said.

The Tigers' offensive potential for 2016 skyrocketed when the two finally reunited on the field this spring. From the talk of those in the program, it looked like the pair hadn't had any time off.

Eric Boynton @ericjboynton

Clemson QB Deshaun Watson and WR Mike Williams at spring practice https://t.co/fYeQ0LtZm5

"They were really able to develop really good chemistry again this spring," Swinney said. "I would anticipate that being a pretty good duo for the fall. He's fortunate to have Deshaun, and Deshaun is fortunate to have him."

The rest of Clemson's receivers are fortunate to have Williams back as well. As Scott likes to tell his receivers, "making big plays is contagious," and Williams spread that bug to the rest of the Tigers.

"Having him back is so helpful for me because it opens more things up down the middle," Renfrow said. "He's such a big body, and he's such a good receiver. A freak of nature."

Nov 15, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Clemson Tigers wide receiver Mike Williams (7) catches a ball against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the first quarter at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Williams' big dreams are no longer on hold after his remarkable recovery. He's part of a Clemson team that has a great chance to repeat as the ACC champion and return to the national championship game.

And he's not tempering any expectations.

"I'm just trying to be the best wide receiver in the country," Williams said. "I feel like I have the type of skill level to do that. That's my main goal. I want to be the best. And we potentially can have the best offense that ever came through Clemson and the best offense in college football this year. That's what it says on paper."

But Williams knows championships and awards aren't accomplished on paper. Neither are first-round NFL draft selections.

Williams maintains close relationships with Watkins and Hopkins, the two star NFL receivers Scott compared him to this offseason. He looks to them for advice and support as he strives to get to where they are today.

"They always tell me, 'Don't get complacent, Mike. There's always someone out there working hard. Always stay hungry,'" Williams said. "At the next level, those dudes are doing it for their families. They're always hungry. So I've got to not get complacent and keep working."

Clemson WR Mike Williams (left)
Clemson WR Mike Williams (left)Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

All that hard work toward recovery and improvement paid off in Auburn on the first Saturday of September. Outside of a lost fumble in the first half, Williams dominated the Auburn secondary, especially on picture-perfect back-shoulder tosses from Watson.

"Man, it's good to see him out there after a year of not playing a game," Swinney told reporters after Clemson's 19-13 victory on the Plains. "That was big for him."

But as Watson said after Clemson's first victory of 2016, Williams is only going to get better as the season continues. He spent nearly a year away from competitive action and still put up a career high.

Bruno Bars @Jared_Shanker

After breaking his neck last season, Mike Williams caught 9 of 14 targets for 174 yards in return. Four completions went for 20+ yards.

His potential when Clemson's offense seriously gets rolling is immense. And Williams isn't going to take a single moment of the campaign for granted. 

"Football could've easily been taken away from me when I got hurt," Williams said. "When I step out on that field again, I'm gonna be hungry. I missed a whole season of football, the game I love so much. I have a different mentality now than what I had before."

Williams pauses and utters six simple words—a promise to every Clemson fan who is dreaming of another storybook season and a warning shot to any defender who will stand in his way like Auburn's did in Week 1.

"It's gonna be crazy this year."


All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.


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