The Clemson offense has extremely high expectations, and they were certainly not met opening weekend against Auburn.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson wasn’t particularly sharp, as he went 19-of-34, which was only good for 55.9 percent. Last season, he completed 67.8 percent of his passes. In Week 1, he had 248 passing yards, averaging 7.3 per attempt (he averaged 8.4 yards per pass last year), one touchdown and one interception. Watson also rushed for only 21 yards on 11 carries.
The offensive problems weren’t just from Watson’s struggles. Senior tight end Jordan Leggett didn’t catch a single pass and looked out of sorts most of the night. He couldn’t line up properly, causing Clemson to call a timeout during the second quarter, and then on the play immediately after the timeout, referees called Leggett for a false start.
First-team All-ACC senior wide receiver Artavis Scott didn’t do much either, catching just three passes for 30 yards.
There was, however, a silver lining for the Clemson offense. Redshirt junior Mike Williams made an impressive return to the field and will add another element to this already potent Tigers offense.
After Week 1, all the “human interest” and “feel-good” story headlines are naturally going to Pittsburgh running back James Conner, who beat cancer this past offseason and scored a touchdown in his return to the field this past weekend, and Georgia running back Nick Chubb, who overcame a gruesome knee injury to rush for 222 yards against North Carolina. But Williams’ return demands the attention of fans too.
The redshirt junior ran his head into the goal post on a four-yard touchdown reception in the first game of last season against Wafford and suffered a scary neck injury on the play. It wasn’t considered life- or career-threatening, but the injury did knock Williams, then the most talented pass-catcher Clemson had, out for the season.
The Tigers still managed to reel off 14 straight victories on their way to the National Championship game, developing Scott, Leggett and Hunter Renfrow as Watson’s playmakers, but after Saturday’s performance, it’s clear Williams is still Clemson’s most dynamic offensive weapon.
Against Auburn, Williams recorded nine receptions for 174 yards, including six catches for 105 yards in the first half. He was clearly Watson’s favorite target, as nobody else even had four catches. At one point, the redshirt junior accounted for 72 percent of the quarterback’s passing yards.
Although his return was impressive, he didn’t play a perfect game. Williams dropped a pass right on his hands in the end zone and also lost a fumble, but his comeback provides the Clemson offense another offensive weapon and dynamic receiver that stretches the field.
Standing at 6-foot-4 and possessing freaky speed and ball skills, Williams resembles Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins and Martavis Bryant, Clemson’s dynamic pass-catchers of yesteryear. As a sophomore, Williams had 57 catches for 1,030 yards, averaging 18.07 yards per catch, and six touchdowns. Even as a freshman, he was a big-play candidate, as he caught just 20 passes, but again averaged over 15.0 yards per grab and scored three times.
If there was anything missing from the Tigers’ offense last season, it was that big-play receiver. Scott reeled in 93 catches a year ago, but most of that was short, intermediate passes, as he averaged 9.69 yards per catch. Clemson stretched the field a little bit more with Leggett and Renfrow, but neither were able to directly replace Williams.
The closest thing the Tigers had in the form of a big-play threat at receiver was then-freshman Deon Cain, who averaged 17.12 yards per catch on 34 receptions. But Williams will be an upgrade over him, and if Dabo Swinney really wants to cause the opposition headaches, he can place both his vertical threats on the field at the same time.
Whether Clemson’s offense fulfills its expectations and is even better than last season is still to be determined, but it’s already clear after just one week that Williams is going to be a major part of the Clemson attack in 2016.