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Clemson receiver Mike Williams is focused on the opportunity gained, not the one lost

Clemson receiver Mike Williams is focused on the opportunity gained, not the one lost
Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams, left, makes a touchdown catch over South Carolina defensive back Jamarcus King during a game in November. (Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)

It's easier to make sense of the past when you're content with your present-day circumstances. Take Mike Williams.

Clemson's star receiver smiles and speaks with a carefree air when revisiting a crash with a goalpost that fractured a vertebrae and sidelined him for all of last season.

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"God doesn't say, 'Oops,' " Williams said over the weekend, repeating the words of Tigers Coach Dabo Swinney.

His NFL future? The fourth-year junior is the top-rated receiver for the upcoming draft.

The disappointment of sitting out the national championship game against Alabama last year? The rematch Monday night will make up for it.

The nightmare that could have unfolded never did. Life was delayed, but remained on the same path. And now, Clemson will have a chance to win its first national championship in 35 years.

Williams provides the Tigers with the caliber of offensive weapon it didn't have in its loss to Alabama last year. Of the numerous future NFL players who will be on the field at Raymond James Stadium, none might be as league-ready as Williams, who is 6 feet 3 with a pterodactyl wingspan.

If No. 2 Clemson upsets the top-ranked Crimson Tide, Williams will be a primary reason why.

"Mike is an animal," Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson said.

As Williams looks ahead to the most important game of his life, he acknowledges thinking back to an incident that nearly changed his life. In the opening game last season against Wofford, he ran a post route to the back of the end zone, where he caught a pass from Watson. A defensive back shoved him in the back at the end of the play, causing him to go head first into the goalpost padding.

Initially, Williams didn't think much of it.

"Just thought it was a bruise," he said.

Jeff Scott, Clemson's co-offensive coordinator, had a similar thought. Scott once saw Williams run into a machine that fires footballs. That time, Williams rolled around on the ground for a couple of minutes, but jumped back on his feet and went on as if nothing had happened. Scott figured Williams would do that again.

Except he didn't. Then the medical attention came.

Williams found himself strapped to a board. His neck was stabilized. He was carted off the field. Fear set in.

"When you usually see that, the injury is very serious," Williams said. "People are paralyzed."

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At a hospital, Williams received comforting news. Doctors informed him of the fracture in his neck, but assured him he would play again. The injury didn't require surgery.

Reflecting on his lost season, Williams talked less about the frustrations he experienced watching the national championship game from the sidelines and more about the appreciation he gained for football.

Instead of thinking of how he could already be in the NFL, he pointed to how returning to school for another year allowed him to graduate last month with a degree in sociology.

And why not? Nothing was lost.

Swinney went a step further.

"He would have been a first-rounder last year, but it wasn't God's timing for him," Swinney said. "He had to sit and watch and I think he's a lot better player than he would have been this time last year."

Williams began the season at 225 pounds, about 15 heavier than he was at the start of last season. His increased physicality has made him more of a nightmare for defensive backs. He has caught 90 passes this season for 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"Mike has a unique ability in the one-on-one man situations versus some of the top corners, to be able to still win those matchups because he's a very physical guy, to be able to go up and attack the ball," Scott said.

But the added bulk hasn't compromised movement.

"A lot of guys that are his height are more straight-line guys, good vertical guys, but maybe don't have the change of direction," Scott said. "Then sometimes you can get these 6-foot guys or 5-11 guys that have good quickness and change of direction. Mike is one of those rare guys that have both, that can run after the catch like a 6-foot guy.

"He's very flexible. His position is one you have to make catches in a lot of different body positions, back shoulder catches."

Alabama Coach Nick Saban singled out Watson as his greatest concern, but efforts to prevent the dual-threat quarterback from scrambling could create openings for Williams.

"If you're going to come down and stop Deshaun, you're putting guys on islands on the outside," Scott said.

Williams smiled.

"That's part of my game," he said.

Williams is aware NFL scouts will be watching, but he isn't concerned.

"I've kind of put that behind me right now," he said. "I play well in this game, everything else will take care of itself."

Of course he thinks that. Up to this point, everything has taken care of itself.

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez

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