CLEMSON, S.C. -- For Clemson's elite wide receivers, the path is as standard as the routes they run. They dazzle as true freshmen, amass numbers and highlights as sophomores and juniors, and then break for the NFL.
They are celebrated in the program's elite receiver lineage, but their stories, unlike most passes thrown their way, are incomplete. No one knows how things would have ended in a Tiger uniform.
Until the early afternoon of Sept. 5, Mike Williams was on the same track.
"I wanted to come out, have a good season and then take my game to the NFL," he said.
One play pushed Williams' plan off course, along with a harrowing diagnosis: fractured neck bone. But the brace is long gone and Williams is back, fully cleared for spring practice and intent on finishing his Clemson story with a flurry.
The Tigers boast a Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback (Deshaun Watson), a 1,500-yard rusher (Wayne Gallman) and 93-catch receiver (Artavis Scott) from an offense that ranked 16th nationally in scoring and 13th in percentage of drives ending in a score. But there is no minimizing the return of Williams, who set a team record for receiving yards by a sophomore (1,030) in 2014, when he earned second-team All-ACC honors.
"If Mike would not have gotten hurt," said Jeff Scott, Clemson's co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach, "he would have had a chance to be a first-round draft pick as a junior, much like Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins. So I tell people all the time, this is what it's going to be like if I had Sammy as a four-year player or 'Nuk' as a four-year player."
Hopkins, a third-team All-America selection at Clemson, was selected 27th overall in the 2013 NFL draft. The following year, Watkins went No. 4 overall after earning first-team All-America honors for the second time as a Tiger.
Tony Elliott, Clemson's co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach, pegs the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Williams as a bigger version of Hopkins, but not quite as fast as Martavis Bryant, yet another former Tiger who skipped his senior season and went in the fourth round of the 2014 draft.
"Obviously, I think he's one of the best in the country in his position," Elliott said of Williams. "He has a chance to put himself in the conversation with some of the great ones that are playing on Sundays from Clemson."
Set to headline Clemson's receiving corps last season, Williams caught a 16-yard pass on the team's opening drive against Wofford. Then, on first-and-goal from the 4-yard line, Watson found Williams in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, but Williams crashed into the bottom of the goal post after being shoved by Wofford cornerback Chris Armfield.
An ambulance transported him to a local hospital for testing.
"Your neck is something serious," Williams said. "You hurt your neck, you probably wouldn't be able to walk again, so I was pretty scared when it first happened. But after talking to the doctors, I gained more confidence in the plan. I always knew I was going to play again.
"It was just wondering when."
It wouldn't be that season. Williams watched Clemson win the ACC title and advance to the College Football Playoff. He was out of the neck brace after nine weeks and jogging and lifting shortly thereafter, but doctors advised him not to return for the Playoff as the bone wasn't completely healed. Watching wasn't easy, but Williams tried to use his enhanced view of the field to diagnose defenses. He received well-wishes from many, including Hopkins, who assured him things would work out.
Following Clemson's loss in the national title game, Williams began running routes with Watson, re-establishing their rhythm.
"The first day of spring practice, it was a sight to see," Williams said.
Williams' pass-catching ability didn't slip, as this Instagram clip showed. A green jersey indicates Williams can't be tackled, but defensive backs can press him on the line and engage in hand combat.
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) March 21, 2016
On one of the first plays this spring, Williams leaped for a pass, hit the ground hard but popped back up immediately, thinking: Ooooh, everything's good.
"Luckily, I don’t have to guard him," linebacker Ben Boulware said. "Thank God."
That task falls on cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson's only returning starter in the secondary. Their one-on-ones are so far fairly even, but Tankersley sees Williams' field-stretching ability. Freshman Deon Cain picked up some of the big-play slack last season, averaging 17.1 yards per reception, but Williams provides a different look.
He averaged 18.1 yards per catch in 2014, when no other Tiger regular averaged more than 13.
"The man has some of the biggest hands I've ever seen," Tankersley said. "He has the size, the speed. Some of these receivers you see in the NFL, like Odell Beckham, he's not half the size of Mike Williams, and he's making all these plays. Mike, he's just that caliber, that NFL prototype.
"He's a first-rounder."
There's that skyscraping expectation again, but Williams, back on the Tiger track, welcomes it with open arms.
"It don't think it's any pressure," he said. "My dream is still ahead of me, and that day will come."