TAMPA — Even when doctors told him he had fractured his neck, Mike Williams was confident he would play again.
The Clemson receiver had caught a short touchdown pass in the 2015 opener against Wofford, tapping a foot in the back of the end zone, and was pushed awkwardly into the padding around the goalpost. The fracture wouldn't require surgery, but it ended his season. And when Clemson faced Alabama for the national title, he was relegated to being the most talented cheerleader in college football.
"It was a tough moment, just knowing you could be out there helping your teammates get a win," Williams said Saturday. "I wanted to be a part of this game, but unfortunately, I couldn't."
On Monday night, he certainly can. Williams returned to his old form and then some, leading Clemson with 90 catches for 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns. If he forgoes his final year of eligibility as many expect, he likely will be the first receiver taken in April's NFL draft, potentially in the top 10 overall. For now, the 6-foot-3 standout will focus on being a potential game-changer in a rematch against Alabama.
"What other way to end your career than with a national championship?" he asked. "That would be one of my biggest accomplishments, other than graduating."
Offensive coordinator Jeff Scott remembers how long Williams was down on the field after he ran into the goalpost. Always up quick after an injury scare, he stayed down. And it wasn't until halftime that coaches knew there was no threat of paralysis, with a full recovery possible in time.
Williams' year out was harder because unlike an ACL or a broken arm, he felt healthy. He asked coaches to let him return to the field, but they couldn't, even with a national title hanging in the balance. Clemson has earned another chance, and Williams has become a better receiver.
"The biggest thing is being more physical," Scott said. "He knew going into this season that he wanted to add some weight. He was 210 last year going into the season. He was 225 this year. That's a big thing for him at the next level. They're going to put their best corner (on him). … It's going to be physical matchups, and I feel like that's where Mike has taken his game to the next level this year."
Alabama's defense has allowed 15 total touchdowns in 14 games this season, so Clemson will need all the playmakers it can get for quarterback Deshaun Watson. Williams wants to lead that charge, but given where he has been, he's also grateful to simply suit up against the Crimson Tide this time around.
"Just being able to be a part of this game, for me it will be a special moment," he said.
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.