Chris Carter knew this was possible.
The former Lake Marion coach shepherded current Clemson star wide receiver Mike Williams through his high school years, watching the tall and talented small-town kid grow and develop. And at the end of four years, he told Williams something.
“What he’s going to be able to do, it’s going to be a lot different when he gets to college,” Carter said this week. “Because he’s going to have time to really focus on his craft. In high school, he was doing a lot of different sports.
“I always just thought once he gets in that environment, he’s going to be phenomenal.”
He left Orangeburg County a strong player, top-250 in his class by one ranking. He did that despite not specializing in football and instead being part of a state title basketball team and winning a high jump state crown.
He’ll leave Clemson as a potential top-10 NFL draft pick.
But for now, he and his teammates have a chance at history with a rematch against Alabama on Monday for the program’s first title since 1981. He’s traveled an up-and-down road to get here.
He had to get through last season, when a fractured bone in his neck completely sidelined him from what had the potential to be a dominant season after a breakout sophomore campaign. So he sat on the sidelines and watched his team go 14-1.
Then he came back, posted a dominant season (90 catches, 1,267 yards, 10 scores) and led his team back to the same point.
“I’m really happy for him,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “I know it was a tough year last year. To first of all be hurt and have to deal with the uncertainty he dealt with in the initial stages of the injury. But then to see the run that we went on and to not be able to play, that was tough on him. But God never says, ‘Oops.’
“That’s what I believe and I think he’s back here for a reason.”
Carter saw this path before.
He saw Williams twist his ankle in Game 1 of his sophomore year after a strong freshman campaign. The injury cost him four or five games, and then 10 catches, 197 yards, three touchdowns the first day back
“He comes back and it’s like he’s a madman,” said Carter, now coach at Edisto.
The coach remembered a quiet younger Williams. Didn’t ask for the spotlight. He came in, did his job, hung up the helmet and went home. As he’s grown, Carter said Williams added a fierceness to his game on the field, an extra edge that was on display when he ran through the likes of South Carolina’s secondary.
Swinney said he’s seen similar changes, especially through the injury, saying an older Mike Williams is a better player and better appreciates his gifts coming through last season.
Williams hails from Vance, a town of less than 200 that spans about half a square mile on the eastern edge of Orangeburg County. He recently called the town so small, the only thing to do was go play sports with friends.
Carter arrived at Lake Marion in Williams’ freshman year, and he kept asking his JV coaches in team meetings, was he ready for varsity?
“They were like, ‘I don’t know, coach. He might not be ready,’ ” Carter said. “ ‘You mess a kid up if you move him up too fast.’ ”
The Gators started 0-4, and Carter was standing on the sideline during the Edisto JV game. Williams was playing well, but after putting his team ahead, the Cougars ran a kick back for a lead with 15 seconds left to go.
Williams lobbied to return the next kick. Carter was skeptical, but Williams was put in.
“He breaks like eight or nine tackles, spins out one side, reverses back across the field,” Carter said. “He runs it out to the 30, but he fumbles the ball and they get it back. But that run he had, I came in the meeting, I said, ‘I don’t care what y’all say, Mike is now varsity.’ ”
The next day, he caught six balls for 149 yards and three touchdowns to snap a long losing streak, and the last score was of particular importance.
The Gators had mounted a long drive, down to the Edisto 5 with around 19 seconds left. Quarterback Chris Jenkins came to the sideline and told Carter the best plan might be something that grew into a mantra for the program: just throw it up to Mike.
“He runs to the middle and they throw it up and three people hit him,” Carter said. “He reaches one hand back and yanks the ball and pulls it down and catches it. “I said right then and there, ‘A star is born.’ ”
He hasn’t really stopped doing that. Watch him on the college field and he looks like he’s basically dominating high schoolers at times. His ability to overpower opponents and snatch contested passes is especially impressive, as he never seems to not be open.
It’s certainly caught attention from pro scouts. CBS pegs him as the 10th pick in the draft. ESPN’s Todd McShay had him as a top-10 pick, while Mel Kiper put him in the top-15.
It’s almost as if Carter knew what he was talking about when he saw a very good player leaving high school and expected so much more.
“I even told our coaches one day, I remember we were sitting in a meeting,” Carter said. “I said, ‘When Mike goes to Clemson and they get him focused, people are not going to believe that was the kid we had in Lake Marion.’
“They’re just not going to be able to believe it.”
Who: Clemson (13-1) vs. Alabama (14-0)
When: 8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Line: Alabama by 6 1/2