No need to wonder whether Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams is all the way back from a neck fracture suffered in the 2015 season opener against Wofford.
Williams made nine catches against Auburn Saturday for a career-high 174 yards. While it had been nearly a year since he last played, Williams seemed to have great chemistry with All-American quarterback Deshaun Watson.
“Chemistry comes when nobody is looking. Now, it’s starting to show,” Williams said of the work he did with Watson last spring and over the summer.
Williams didn’t have a catch in the first quarter, then the offensive players got together between periods to emphasize getting him the ball. Williams had six receptions in the second quarter alone, for 105 yards.
Williams advised Watson about some nuances in how he was being covered that helped the two of them optimize Watson’s throws.
“I told him the (defensive back) was working hard on the top, so give me a lot of back-shoulder balls and that’s what he did,” Williams said. “It worked out.”
There appeared to be no reluctance on Williams’ part to take contact after the serious neck injury he suffered.
“I’ve been hit harder than that in practice,” Williams said. “Nothing they gave was anything I hadn’t seen in practice, so everything was good.”
Williams’ injury somewhat took him off the radar of media regularly covering the ACC. He was just fourth in balloting for the all-conference preseason team.
“All that preseason stuff, I don’t really look at it,” Williams said. “At the end of the year, we’ll see who is on that team.”
Youth is served
Despite its inexperience compared to Clemson’s offense, the Tigers’ defensive unit had an impressive game versus Auburn.
Auburn’s offense finished the game at 3.7 yards per play. Through three quarters, Auburn averaged just 2.8 yards per play.
Clemson’s defense lost ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and cornerback Mackensie Alexander to the NFL last spring. But defensive coordinator Brent Venables liked the quick progress among young players in the spring and in August camp.
“I was confident. I really liked how our guys were working – their attitude, their willingness to be coached,” Venables said. “I knew there would be things they didn’t do well or weren’t coached well, but we like our guys.”
Particularly impressive was freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. The 6-5, 340-pounder from suburban Raleigh was a first-team USA Today high school All-American and looked every bit the part against Auburn. He had a sack and a pass break-up and even played a little on offense in goal-line situations.
Lawrence enrolled at Clemson in January, so he participated in spring practice and proved to Venables he was ready to contribute.
“I’ve gotten over that surprise,” Venables said of Lawrence’s immediate impact. “I really felt the moment would not be too big for him because he’s a very mature, humble, hard-working ‘I’m going to take care of X-Y-Z and everything else will take care of itself’ kind of guy.”
No bragging rights
Watson regularly confers with Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who has mentored him for years. Watson made it clear postgame Saturday he wouldn’t be needling Auburn alumnus Newton about Clemson’s victory.
“It will just be regular: What I can improve on, what I need to work on,” Watson said.
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell