Last year, E.J. Williams was a freshman eager to earn the trust of the coaching staff, carve out a role in Clemson’s receiving corps and prove he belonged on the field.
Now, a year later, the sophomore wideout is more established after emerging down the stretch of the 2020 season when the Tigers were down a few receivers due to injuries and he was asked to step in.
However, although he took advantage of his opportunities and had success as a true freshman, Williams is not any less motivated heading into the 2021 season.
This spring, he has been pushed by Clemson’s new freshmen receivers who are in a similar position that he was in last year, and who have driven him to work harder and become a better player at his craft.
“You see young guys come in, it’s going to put a fire under you to just go a little harder, do the extra effort, all the extra things that it takes to be the best you can be in every aspect of football,” Williams said on Wednesday. “So, those young guys coming in, and then (Dabo) Swinney adding a little motivation, getting a little fire under you. He’s wanting you to work harder than you are. So, it’s just motivation for me to go harder.”
The newcomers Williams alluded to are Beaux and Dacari Collins, a pair of former four-star prospects who arrived on campus in January as early enrollees.
The two Collins have flashed their talent throughout spring practice and shown they are more advanced receivers than the average freshman.
“They came in, they’re way ahead of a lot of other freshmen around the country,” Williams said. “You can just immediately tell they’ve got the big size, big stature coming in – like 215, 210. Big guys, and they’ve got real good hips, good shift, good everything. They’re just polished receivers when they came in already.”
A former four-star prospect himself, Williams finished his freshman campaign in 2020 with 306 yards on 24 receptions – both fifth on the team – and added two touchdown catches in 396 snaps across 12 games, including four starts.
The Phenix City, Ala., native broke out against Pittsburgh in late November when he posted three catches for 38 yards and his first career touchdown reception, then continued to shine in the ACC Championship Game vs. Notre Dame a few weeks later, notching career highs with four receptions for 80 yards — including a 33-yard touchdown catch and a highlight-reel one-handed grab.
Williams learned last season that Clemson isn’t afraid to play freshmen just because they are young, as long as the coaching staff is confident they can handle their business on the field.
“I’d say mainly I figured out that they really don’t care about age, really, anything like that,” he said. “It’s all in the aspect of if you want to get the job done. Because the Notre Dame game last year, Frank (Ladson) got hurt midgame, and I came in. They told me at halftime I was going to play. I didn’t really think I was going to get in that much. But the rest of the game I ended up playing, and it’s all a trust thing.
“If they believe you can do the work and you show that you’re putting in the work on the field, as I said before, they’re going to give you those opportunities and you’ve just got to capitalize with them.”
Williams has proven again this spring he is willing to put the work in, and his work ethic certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by head coach Dabo Swinney, who stopped a practice earlier this spring to let Williams know he appreciated his effort.
“He did catch me off guard when he did it because I was just thinking going hard, trying to do what I can do to, just be the best player I could while I’m in practice,” Williams said. “And then he ended up stopping practice, just telling me keep doing what I’m doing, ‘I like the way you’re practicing, you’re practicing hard.’ It wasn’t even about me making a crazy catch or anything. It’s just giving 100-percent effort. He loves to see it every practice.”
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