AUBURN, Ala. — Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams felt like he was all the way back from the season-ending neck injury he suffered last fall as soon as he returned to the practice fields in early March.
He just needed to show the world that he is back, and that’s exactly what he did in second-ranked Clemson’s season opener at Auburn on Saturday night.
Playing in his first game since suffering a fracture in his neck during Clemson’s first game of the 2015 season against Wofford last September, Williams caught nine passes for a career-high 174 yards as Clemson defeated Auburn 19-13.
“I always felt like I was back the first day I came back,” Williams said. “I just needed to get in a game and show everybody else that I’m back.”
With that said, Williams admitted he especially felt like he was back in the moments before kickoff.
“It was pregame warm-ups,” Williams said. “There were a lot of fans out there. It was a hostile environment, and that’s what I like. I like to give everybody a good game.”
Clemson’s offense went as Williams did in the game.
Williams wasn’t targeted at all in the first quarter, when Clemson was held scoreless and totaled just 85 yards of offense.
But that changed on Clemson’s first drive of the second quarter. Quarterback Deshaun Watson targeted Williams four times, and he caught three of the passes for 51 yards to help set up Clemson’s first touchdown and give the ACC’s Tigers a 7-3 lead they would not relinquish.
“He was the spark for us tonight,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “Obviously we got off to a slow start, and he came alive.”
“It’s great to have Mike back,” Elliott continued. “I’m very happy for him. It’s been a long time since he’s played football.”
Williams’ previous career high for receiving yardage was 155 yards against N.C. State in October 2014. Though he topped that against Auburn, Williams knows he could have had more.
“I felt like I could have had two touchdowns,” Williams said. “I dropped two touchdowns on easy slants.”
The redshirt junior also fumbled after a third-down catch in the second quarter, but Auburn couldn’t take advantage.
“Mike had a career high, but he left a lot on the field, too,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’ll be the first one to tell you there was two or three (plays) out there that he usually makes.
“But man, it was good to see him back out there after a year of not playing a game. That was big for him.”
At the end of the day, the miscues were a minor blip on an otherwise outstanding performance. Without Williams, Clemson might not have walked away from Jordan-Hare Stadium with a W.
Williams helped Clemson close out the game in the fourth quarter. His critical 20-yard catch on third-and-8 extended Clemson’s final drive and milked precious time off of the clock.
“He knows there are a few balls he could have caught, but the dude’s a player,” Clemson center Jay Guillermo said. “He bounced back and made key catches at key times, so I’m really proud of him.”
After standing on the sidelines in a neck brace for most of last season, unable to do anything but watch his teammates make a run at the national title, Williams was glad to get back and contribute again.
“I missed the whole season, so just to come back and play in a game like this, it felt good,” Williams said.
His teammates are certainly glad he’s back, too.
“It’s great to have him back to help lead this team and this offense,” Watson said.
“It’s always good having Mike back,” running back Wayne Gallman added. “It’s somebody else you know you can count on.”