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Clemson's Mike Williams, the 'Next Megatron,' Could Be the Big Catch vs. Alabama

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterJanuary 4, 2017

Mike Williams reacts after a catch against Pittsburgh.
Mike Williams reacts after a catch against Pittsburgh.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

They come from all over to fish the fresh waters of Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie and just to beto stare at forever on the horizon of South Carolina's inland sea, one of the most beautiful bodies of water on God's green earth.

A handful of miles back and just off Old Number Six Highway, in the sleepy, tiny town of Vancepopulation less than 200is the home of the NFL's next superstar receiver.

The next Megatron.

"For real?" Clemson wideout Mike Williams asks incredulously when told that NFL scouts are comparing him to the receiver who dominated their league for nearly a decade. "Somebody actually said that?"

For real.

"He's the closest thing I've seen to Calvin Johnson in a while," one NFL scout told Bleacher Report. "He's tall and long and fast and has all the physical tools of the great receivers we've had." And, like Johnson at Georgia Tech, "He's a long way from the ceiling of what he could be."

One NFC college scouting director compared Williams to Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos and Alshon Jeffery of the Bears, per Albert Breer of The MMQB (h/t NFL.com). An AFC executive told Breer he's the best receiver in the 2017 draft class.

If the redshirt junior comes out, as expected.

Williams can't quite reach a pass against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Williams can't quite reach a pass against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Before we go further, let's stick with the here and now, and the immediate future of Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship. The one thing Alabama doesn't do so well (cover in the secondary) leaves the Crimson Tide open to the one thing Clemson did better than any Power Five school over the last four months: pitch and catch.

This season, Williams has caught 90 passes for 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns, many of which were worthy of one or more of his multiple highlight reels. On 3rd-and-4 or longer, he has 21 catches for 366 yards, a 17.4-yard average, with 15 first downs and three touchdowns.

The best indicator of just how vital he is to the Tigers: In Clemson's offense, the boundary receiver is the most important spot in the passing game, co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. He has to catch 80 to 90 percent of balls thrown his way. Williams has never dipped below the high-80s all season.

That Williams is even here to play at all, a year after he was pushed head-first into a goal post as he caught a touchdown pass in the 2015 season opener, breaking a bone in his neck, is where this story begins.

You don't leap in the air for a ball and come down just short of the goal post, with nowhere to go but straight into the dark uncertainty of a neck injury, then spend a few weeks in rehab and jump right back into it.

"You're not outworking that injury," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. "You're praying and hoping and doing everything the doctor says and hoping to get a second chance."

Well, sort of.

If you're Williams, and you grew up a two-sport star in Vance, and literally (not figuratively) everyone knows you and you know everyone, and they've seen you walk off the basketball court with an ankle that swelled to the size of your knee seconds after the ankle bone touched the floor, there's no way you're sitting and waiting and hoping.

Praying, yes—but even the healer himself needs a nudge every once in a while.

"I probably shouldn't say this because no one knows this; I've never told anyone," Williams said. "But I was moving my neck two or three weeks after it happened. It's like when you hurt your ankle and it's tight. You're just moving it slowly because it's stiff. Just trying to work it out."

So there's Williams, not even a month from an injury that could prevent him from playing again, forced to wear a large, hard neck brace for 24 hours a day—not one of those soft, cushioned braces that immediately comes to mind—gradually moving his neck on his own.

Not while others were around, when he had to turn his entire body to look left and right and to see and speak. And not when he had to endure the indignity of walking around campus with everyone staring at him, a 6'3", 225-pound dude with a brace on his neck.

But when he was alone. When his mind would replay the injury. When his heart was tortured as he watched his teammates roll through a special 2015 season without him. They'd be practicing, he'd be in the locker room, lightly running back and forth when he wasn't supposed to.

CHESTNUT HILL, MA - OCTOBER 07: Mike Williams #7 of the Clemson Tigers makes a catch near the goal line as Isaac Yiadom #20 of the Boston College Eagles defends in the first quarter of their game at Alumni Stadium on October 7, 2016 in Chestnut Hill, Mass
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

They forged an unbeaten season before losing in the CFP National Championship to Alabama. He counted the days until the Clemson medical staff told him he could play again.

The staff that had no idea what he was doing away from their care.

"I didn't know that happened until now," said Danny Poole, Clemson's director of sports medicine. "It's certainly not something you like [to hear]. It's not a typical injury. The only way it heals is through time."

That's the last thing Williams had. Had everything gone as planned in 2015, he would have declared for the NFL draft after the season, and by now he'd be on his way to trying to live up to the Megatron comparisons.

Had Williams not run head-on into an involuntary, eight-month vacation, Alabama would've had no answer for him last January—and maybe the Tigers would've won their first national title since 1981. It's not hard to do the math.

Clemson's most productive receiver in that 45-40 loss was Hunter Renfrow, a former walk-on quarterback turned wideout. No disrespect to Renfrow, who has developed into a quality option for Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, but he's no Megatron.

"None taken," Renfrow laughed. "Mike is an unbelievable talent. I don't think it's a stretch to say things might have been different (against Alabama)."

The obvious next question is: What about now?

What about Clemson adding a player who one scout told Bleacher Report "might go as high as top five or seven" in this year's NFL draft if he comes out? A player the scout said he would be "shocked" to see on the board after the 10th pick?

A player who is a matchup nightmare for any defense, much less an Alabama secondary that, when spread out and forced to cover in man, gives ground in individual battles?

A player who used this past spring and summer to gain weight and increase his speed and explosive ability out of breaks and off the line of scrimmage, and to refine his ability to high-point the ball and make critical catches look easy?

Jared Tokarz @NFLDraftInsider

2017 NFL Draft WR rankings: 1) Mike Williams 2) Corey Davis 3) John Ross 4) JuJu Smith-Schuster 5) Courtland Sutton 6)Cooper Kupp

"The best way I can describe what Mike means to this offense is, as a quarterback, you always want to make the perfect throw," Watson said. "But with Mike out there, I know if I get it near him, he's going to go get it."

That Williams consistently wins those one-on-one battles with defenders is no surprise once you learn how much he loves basketball.

"You're playing on a team, and it takes a team to win, but you're also on another guy and he's on you for just about the entire game," he said. "That's probably why I loved it so much and still do. It's competing man-to-man, and there's only one winner every trip down the court."

Eight months ago, after the injury had healed and after Poole officially told Williams he could participate in spring practice, he was working against All-ACC cornerback Cordrea Tankersley in a seven-on-seven drill. Williams ran a streak, and Tankersley ran step-for-step with him.

Moments later, the ball floated toward the sideline and Williams—like he had hundreds of times before—went up to get the ball at its high point and snatch yet another catch. Tankersley collided into Williams while defending and both fell hard to the ground.

"Kind of on my neck," Williams said.

"I don't think I've been more scared for those first few seconds when it happened," Tankersley said. "You have no idea what did or didn't just happen."

Williams popped up, tapped Tankersley on the helmet and away they went. No pain, no limitations, no fear of what could or would be.

"I remember thinking: That ain't so bad," Williams said.

Williams is attended to after he collided with the goal post on September 5, 2015.
Williams is attended to after he collided with the goal post on September 5, 2015.Tyler Smith/Getty Images

Unless, of course, you're the guy on the other side of the field trying to cover him. If you're trying to figure out how to slow down the guy NFL scouts are comparing to the player who revolutionized the position in nine seasons with the Detroit Lions.

Years ago, when Swinney returned to coaching football following a two-year break after he was fired along with every other assistant on the previous staff by new Alabama head coach Dennis Franchione, then-Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden told his new wide receivers coach that his first recruiting trip was to Atlanta to see a lanky wideout named Calvin Johnson.

Nearly a decade later, when Swinney first saw Williams, he saw the frame and the potential. But Megatron?

"With some guys, you never know what you have other than potential," Swinney said. "He was big-fish-little-pond there in his high school. You think to yourself, 'Well, what do we got here?'"

What they have is a transcendent talent; a superstar wideout who might just be the key to ending Alabama's vise lock on college football.

What they have is the biggest thing around Vance since someone pulled that giant, 136-pound blue catfish from the beautiful Lake Moultrie waters a few years back.

The record catch wasn't official because it was caught with a trotline, a heavy fishing line that uses multiple baited hooks at various intervals instead of one, simple hook-and-line catch.

The advantage of a trotline? If it gets near anything, it's going to catch it. 

         

Matt Hayes covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MattHayesCFB. All stats via CFBstats.com, except as noted.

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