Alabama and Georgia will face off in the CFBP National Championship game tonight, which means it's been exactly one year since Mike Williams helped Clemson capture the title.
The wide receiver was terrific that day, hauling in eight passes for 94 yards including a touchdown in the fourth quarter to put the Tigers within striking distance. He also made a pivotal, acrobatic 24-yard snare with less than two minutes remaining which was the biggest play of the game-winning drive.
While it marked the culmination of his collegiate career, it marked the beginning of a draft process that saw him skyrocket as the consensus top wideout available.
Unfortunately, his rookie season went the opposite of what was expected.
Williams suffered a back injury on the first day of rookie mini camp two weeks after the draft. It was later diagnosed, and kept him sidelined until Week 6 in October. Having missed countless reps and thrown into the fire with only a couple weeks of practice under his belt, Williams finished with only 11 catches for 95 yards in 10 games.
"Mike had a slow season," acknowledged Head Coach Anthony Lynn. "The injuries held him back. The whole season held him back. But, we like Mike. We see Mike in practice and like some things he does. I think Philip is starting to trust Mike more and so, we see that relationship growing and Mike being a big part of this offense."
"Receiver is a tough position to come in this league and play right away," added GM Tom Telesco. "It's even harder when you miss OTAs and all of training camp, so we gradually got him in there. He did learn a good amount this year."
Philip Rivers also weighed in, noting how it was hard for Williams to truly get in a groove with all the time he missed prior to his debut.
"I think really because of the lack of those OTAs, and training camp and practice reps (was) huge," he said. "You get in the season; it's all game-planning. It's all against the looks squad of certain things, (so you) don't have the time to say, 'Alright, I'm just going to work Mike on this end back-side and just cram it in no matter what just see if he can go in there and snatch it, no matter what.' We don't have the time to do all that during a game-planning week…. He never seemed fully comfortable, and I don't know that it ever just had flow to it for him. I still think there's a little bit of thinking going on. It never felt like he was playing free."
Williams' rookie year was clearly marred by adversity.
But if you expect him to succumb to hard times, then you don't know much about the 23-year old wideout.
That's because after fracturing his neck in the 2015 season opener, Williams defied the odds with a monster 2016 campaign. The 6-3, 218-pounder led the Tigers in receptions (98), receiving yards (1,361) and receiving touchdowns (11). Those marks were good enough for the second-most receptions and third-most receiving yards in school history in a single season.
Thus, if you think Williams is about to let an injury-plagued rookie year define his future, you'd better think again.
Not that he needs it, but Williams can gain further motivation by simply looking seven lockers over to the right at Hoag Performance Center.
There sits Melvin Gordon, who also had a disappointing rookie season in which he failed to find the end zone once.
He's responded by scoring 24 total touchdowns over the past two seasons, which is only one behind Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley (25) for tops in the NFL.
So, what advice does the running back have to impart on Williams.
"Just keep grinding," he simply said before repeating it again for emphasis. "Just keep grinding."
It's clear the Bolts believe Williams has a bright future, expecting him to be a key cog for years to come.
"It's going to take this offseason of working with Philip, working with the quarterbacks," Telesco said. "He knows the offense, but there's a difference between knowing the offense in a book and actually applying it on the field, getting used to the timing and reps with the quarterback, and that all will come this offseason. So at least we got him back on the field, he got some work but we're expecting more next year."
"This offseason will be huge for him," added Rivers. "I'm excited about Mike. I think he'll add a lot and bring a great impact to our offense. But this offseason will be huge for him; to get him healthy, all those OTAs, a full offseason program, weight room and running. Mike can add another dimension to our offense."