By Ed McGranahan.
Mike Williams had big dreams growing up in tiny Vance, a sliver of Orangeburg County between I-95 and Lake Marion.
Basketball was his passion, football was a pastime. When he was introduced to new Lake Marion football coach Chris Carter, Williams was in the school gym during a pickup game. Carter was looking for players. Carter was told Williams might make a fair receiver if he’d devote as much time to football as he did basketball.
“Give football a try,” Carter recalled telling him. “You never know how good you can be.”
Five years later, Williams hasn’t reached his potential, but it has been intriguing to watch his ascent toward becoming one of the most dynamic receivers in Clemson history.
“I told the coaches once he gets to college and focuses on football, we’re going to be shocked by what we had here at Lake Marion,” Carter said. “He has unbelievable ability. People are just now starting to see Mike Williams.”
Roughly 6-foot-3 with long limbs and an affection for playing above defenses as if going for the rim, Williams has 30 receptions for 671 yards through the first seven games his sophomore season at Clemson. The numbers compare favorably to Sammy Watkins’ first seven games a year ago when he was a first round NFL draft pick.
Nearly two-thirds of Williams’ catches (19) this season have been for at least 20 yards, and his average 22.37 yards per catch leads the nation. This from a young man who wasn’t sure he wanted to play football in high school and nearly found himself benched last August after a lackluster preseason.
Not an instant hit with the junior varsity after Carter recruited him Williams spent the first couple of games on the bench. When he finally had an opportunity to play, the athleticism was breathtaking. Carter wanted to promote him to varsity after one game, but the jayvee coaches were reluctant.
“He wasn’t very fast and had a funny way of running, but he was making plays,” Carter said, so he asked after Williams’ second game. And again the jayvee staff resisted.
In a game with Edisto the next week Williams caught a pass for the go-ahead touchdown. When Edisto returned the kickoff to retake the lead, Williams campaigned to go back on the field. Carter was amused. “I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. Put you back there? You’re not fast enough’
“He dang near broke nearly 10 tackles and gets the ball to the Edisto 20-yard line,” Carter said. “When he falls on the ground he fumbles the ball and they win.
“After the game I go in the office and said, ‘Y’all don’t have to worry about me asking anymore. Mike Williams will play varsity from here on out,” Carter said. “First game he catches nine passes, 150 yards and three touchdowns and we win our first game. After that I said, ‘a star is born.’ ”
Still, there were stretches when Carter had his doubts about which route Williams might take. During the summer Carter couldn’t depend on Williams to join them for 7-on-7 competition, and initially he was reluctant to join them at college camps.
As a junior he worked some at quarterback and tight end as well as receiver, and the football offers began to arrive. Scouts compared him to Alshon Jeffery and A.J. Green, a pair of long, athletic receivers from South Carolina who went on to productive college and NFL careers, but Williams continued to play basketball year round.
“I spent a lot of time trying to convince him,” Carter said, “Telling him, ‘you could really be good at this if you focus.’”
Questions about his focus followed Williams to Clemson. As a freshman, with Watkins and Martavis Bryant to challenge and inspire him, he had 20 catches for 316 and three touchdowns and the promise was seductive. Once they left for the NFL, he wandered and nearly lost his starting job during preseason practice.
A personable young man with a twinkle in his eyes and a wry grin, Williams suggested in August that maybe he wasn’t always as serious as he needed be.
“We were looking to put him on the bench or moving him,” said offensive coordinator Chad Morris. “He wasn’t playing with any confidence.”
A couple dropped passes at Georgia might have been a big setback, Morris said, hadn’t Williams the experience as a freshman. Williams said he began to draw on what he learned watching Watkins prepare and it began pay dividends quickly after Georgia.
“If you watch him in practice, it will make you mad. You’d get frustrated,” Carter said. “When the lights come on, he’s a different player.”
“I can’t tell you how many games with a few seconds to play, I’d call a timeout and say, ‘what are we going to do?’ The guys would say, ‘throw it to Mike.’”
Far from a finished product, Morris said Williams has become not only a big-play downfield target but one of the more dependable receivers because of his ability to shed coverage or go above it.
“It’s changed. I’m trying to handle my business, learning to focus,” he said. “Learning how to practice, taking notes from when Sammy was here.
“I’m just trying to be great,” he said. “But it takes a whole lot of work.”
Ironically he provably wasn’t two feet off the ground for his most dramatic catch this season, a Superman dive for a 31-yard touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson against N.C. State on Williams’ 20th birthday.
“What he’s meant to us right now is definitely provided some consistency and the ability to get open,” Morris said. “He’s a guy that’s really worked hard to get to where he is today.”