Opening week in college football was Clemson star wide receiver Mike Williams return to action after a season ending injury last year, and he made sure to impress. Sean Cottrell breaks down Williams’ tape to show why he was so successful in his season debut.
Throughout the 2015 season, and in the days following the Clemson Tigers’ narrow loss to Alabama in the national championship, many fans and analysts speculated on the impact that star wide receiver Mike Williams could have had. Would he alone have been enough to change the final outcome of the season? The answer to that question may never be answered definitively. After Williams’ 2016 season debut against the Auburn Tigers, however, it would be difficult to say he wouldn’t have had a big impact.
Much of the hype surrounding Williams’ performance was related to his nine receptions for 174 yards, which is certainly impressive in and of itself. But it was the context surrounding that production that made such a big impact for Clemson. Deshaun Watson finally targeted Williams with 12 minutes remaining in the half after leading three unsuccessful drives in the first quarter, igniting a fire that Auburn defenders were unable to contain, let alone put out for the remainder of the night.
The Clemson offense finished the game with 19 points on two touchdowns and two field goals, and Williams was featured on all of the scoring drives. Watson again looked to Williams as Clemson was nursing a six-point lead and trying to run out the clock, this time connecting on a 20-yard pass to drain another minute and effectively turn out the lights on Auburn. To say Williams was the offense that night would be an understatement.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Why was Williams so Successful?
It would be unfair to make any definitive judgments about the traits that Williams displayed after just one game to start the 2016 season. Some of those traits, however, were so evident that they are impossible to ignore. More specifically, Williams’ awareness of the positioning of defenders and his ability to control his body and adjust to the ball was on full display. Let’s review some of his performance.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Body Control & Awareness of Defenders
It should be noted that the Auburn defenders didn’t necessarily play poorly in this game, but rather were physically outclassed by Williams. Throughout the night, Williams repeatedly beat them in one-on-one battles and on back-shoulder throws, as highlighted in the first example below.
The play came on Clemson’s final scoring drive of the night. The Tigers held a 13-6 lead early in the 4th quarter on a 1st and 10 from their 45-yard line. Clemson is in 11 personnel with slot formation to the wide side of the field and wing formation to the boundary, with Williams as the lone receiver split wide to the right. Auburn, in nickel personnel, shows two deep safeties before sending one safety down to cover Clemson WR Artavis Scott (#3) on the jet motion and rolling into Cover 1 at the snap.
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Williams (#7), facing off coverage from cornerback Carlton Davis (#6), takes an outside release off of the line of scrimmage and sprints downfield on a vertical route. Watson sees Williams singled up in man coverage and throws the ball behind him, trusting Williams to adjust to the ball. While charging full speed along the sideline, Williams looks back for the ball, throttles down while turning back inside of the cornerback to make the catch for a 34-yard gain.
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On the surface, this looks like a fairly ordinary catch, especially given that Williams made these types of catches all night. But, when you imagine the lower body power and hip flexibility that would be required to stop all of his 6’3″, 225 lb frame from a full sprint and then turn around and make the catch with such ease, it is very impressive. Then, look at Davis, a 2015 SEC All-Freshman honoree, who cannot even stay on his feet when trying to execute the same body adjustment. It’s clear that this was no ordinary feat on Williams’ part.
Williams also made a similarly impressive catch back in the 2nd quarter with Clemson down three points and the ball on its own 28-yard line with 11 personnel on the field. Williams is the X receiver isolated to the boundary in a 3X1 formation. Auburn puts Davis in press man coverage over Williams and again rolls into Cover 1 at the snap.
When the ball is snapped, Williams does a quick stutter step before releasing to the outside of Davis and running a vertical down the sideline. The other Clemson receivers run a stick concept to the wide side of the field. Watson sees the safety rotate over toward the stick concept, immediately looks back to Williams and throws him a perfect back-shoulder strike. Williams is again able to stop his momentum, turn his body back to the ball and make the catch.
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Davis actually played this ball about as well as he could. He turned as soon as he felt Williams going for the back shoulder throw and gets his left arm up to try to impact the catch. But Williams showed such great awareness of Davis’ positioning and went up to attack the ball at its highest point rather than waiting for it to come to him. Then, upon securing the catch, he turned his body outside just in time to prevent Davis from being able to dislodge the ball and is able to pick up an extra six yards before being brought down. Aside from his awareness of the CB, Williams’ body control here was the most impressive part of this play. He essentially stops from a full sprint to perform a spin move in the air, gets both feet down in bounds and picks up additional yardage on the ground.
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It is the little aspects of Williams’ game, such as those highlighted above, that make him such a special talent. To make this play, many WRs would have to focus all of their attention on contorting their body back to the ball or securing the contested catch. Williams does those things so naturally that it allows him to be aware of not just his own body, but also of those around him, allowing him to be one step ahead of the defender on a consistent basis.
If there is one concerning part to Williams’ game, it is his ability to use his hands to defeat press coverage. For the most part, he was solid versus press throughout the night but there were a few occasions in which the defensive back got physical with him at the line of scrimmage and he wasn’t prepared to defeat it.
The video below shows two different plays in which Williams seems to have been caught off guard by the jam at the line of scrimmage. The first play came on the first drive of the game and the second toward the end of the first half.
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In both plays, Williams had his hands a little low and was unable to get them up in time to engage the defender, swipe his hands, or work around him with another move. This is not something to be overly concerned about, though. Given his large frame and physical style of play, there is no doubting his toughness or effort in these situations. This merely seems to be an area for refinement that he should be able to improve with just a little bit of work.
Clemson seemed to struggle to generate any consistent offensive production that didn’t involve Williams in the opener versus Auburn. As such, Williams will certainly be high on every defensive coordinator’s agenda throughout the season. If he can adjust to what these coordinators throw at him even half as well as he can adjust his body to the ball, Clemson should have another great year offensively and Williams will certainly be in the conversation as one of the top WRs in the upcoming draft.
Follow Sean on Twitter @PhllyDraft. Check out more of Sean’s work here, such as on what Dorian Green-Beckham can do for the Philadelphia Eagles, how coach Bronco Mendenhall gets to the quarterback, how Carson Wentz did in his first preseason game,what Justin Fuente brings to the Virginia Tech Hokies offense, and on Mark Richt and the triangle offense in Miami.
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All film courtesy of ESPN.
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