NFL football coaches always are on the lookout for players who can catch “50-50” balls, meaning those passes that hang high in the air, giving the wide receiver and cornerback each an equal chance to come down with the ball.
Former Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams is not the guy for that, ESPN analyst and former Oakland and Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden said. That’s because there are no 50-50 balls when the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Williams is in the area, Gruden said.
“Mike Williams is not playing 50-50, he’s probably playing 80-20. When it’s up in the air, he’s getting it,” Gruden said. “He has great hang time, an incredible vertical leap, just a real good playing strength.”
Beating the odds has been a talent of Williams’ for a while now. It started just by getting noticed by recruiting analysts out of tiny Vance in Orangeburg County, population 169.
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“Not too many people go to college or even make it out. I’m just one of the few, trying to set an example for the kids back home in Vance, and just show them that you can go to college, graduate and just chase your dreams,” Williams said.
It continued when Williams emerged as good as ever from a broken neck he suffered in the first game of the 2015 season, costing him the rest of the year.
“It was a tough moment for me,” he said. “To come back this year and just have fun with my teammates was a great experience. I’m good. I’m healthy. I wasn’t worried about that. I visited with the doctors every week after I got my injury, and I was just hearing great news, so I was just keeping everything positive.”
He bounced back to catch 98 passes for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns last year as the Tigers won the national championship. And he could be a top 10 selection on Thursday night, when the first round of the NFL draft will be held in Philadelphia.
“Look at DeAndre Hopkins, Martavis Bryant, Sammy Watkins,” Gruden said. Clemson has “a pipeline of producing down-the-field, vertical, go-get-it, 50-50 jump ball receivers. They are committed to it at Clemson, and they’re great at it.”
“I just believe if the ball is in the air, it’s mine,” Williams said. “That’s just confidence gained from practice and just going out there every day having fun. You can work on it, but I feel like it’s something that just naturally happens sometimes. Reactions.”
Most analysts expect Williams to be selected somewhere between No. 5 by the Tennessee Titans to No. 10 by the Buffalo Bills, where he would be teamed up again with Watkins.
“Mike Williams creates his own space,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “He’s a big, physical dude. I think he welcomes press coverage. He’s probably the best guy at the wide receiver position in this draft in the red zone because of his catch radius and his physicality.”
Williams did not run the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, and the time he ran at Clemson’s Pro Day (4.49) would have been only the 17th-fastest at the Combine. But his size and physicality outweigh that in the eyes of most NFL scouts.
“Jerry Rice didn’t run a fast time. Antonio Brown didn’t run a fast time. He’s the highest-paid receiver in the league right now,” Williams said. “It’s all about just playing football if you look at it at the end of the day.”
Western Michigan’s Corey Davis and Washington speedster John Ross are the other two wide receivers who could be selected in the first round – possibly even ahead of Williams, although he doesn’t think that would be a good decision.
“If you’re here and don’t believe you’re the best at your position, I don’t know why you’re here,” he said. “I feel like everybody should think they’re the best at their position.”
Williams also needs to adapt to NFL passing games, which feature more route combinations and larger playbooks than he was used to at Clemson, Gruden said, but that’s not going to stop someone from taking him early Thursday.
“He performed in critical moments in a big way,” Gruden said. “He’s a showman, and he’s a guy that can really be a force in those red zone, 50-50, 80-20, whatever we’re calling them now, situations.”