TAMPA BAY, Fla. — For two seniors on the No. 2 Clemson Tigers, this game means a little more.
They were not able to have the impact they had hoped for when the Tigers took the field last year in the national championship. One was out with injury and the other, in his coaches’ eyes, wasn’t ready. Both are from The T&D Region.
For former Lake Marion Gator and current Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams, a junior who will forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft after receiving his degree in December, last season was one of sheer joy and unimaginable pain.
The joy came in watching the Tigers make a magical run to the national title game for the first time in 34 years. The pain came because he couldn’t help his team due to a broken bone in his neck suffered in the first game of the season — on the first offensive drive of the season.
“It was a tough moment,” Williams said. “Just to not be able to go out there and have fun with your teammates, it was just a tough moment. But to have the opportunity to come back out here now and play in the national championship is a special moment.
It was that frustration, going from the Tigers’ leading receiver the year before to not being able to help his team when needed most, that drove him to be great this year.
This year, a fully healthy Williams picked up right where he left off in 2014, becoming only the third player in school history to reach the 1,000-yard receiving mark in two different seasons. But even with the accomplishments, all will be for naught if the Tigers cannot raise the trophy Monday night as the No. 1 team in college football.
“It would just be big. I mean, what other way to end your career than with a national championship?” Williams said. “That would probably be one of the biggest accomplishments — other than me graduating — that I would have accomplished here.”
But for another Orangeburg County native, former Orangeburg-Wilkinson standout Jadar Johnson, the lack of influence he had on the game last year, totaling one defensive snap and zero tackles, was because the coaches believed he was not ready.
It was that message from the coaches that Johnson used to drive him into starting for the Tigers in all 14 games this season.
“It definitely gave me the extra motivation to go out and do what I needed to do to get out on the field,” Johnson said. “That’s what I love of Coach V (defensive coordinator Brent Venables) — he’s going to keep it real with you and told me exactly what I needed to hear.
“I could have just sat around and pouted and been mad that I wasn’t on the field, or I could take the criticism that he gave me and go work on the things that I needed to work on and get my shot and that’s what I did.
“It was really just me getting in the film room and learning the playbook a little more,” Johnson said. “I felt like I had the skill set that I needed last year, but I just wasn’t as smart as I needed to be to get out on the field and be the best player that I needed to be.”
This season, Johnson has amassed 56 tackles, seven tackles for loss and a team-high five interceptions.
Now, with a chance to erase the pain of last season fully in their sights, both Williams and Johnson are not going to go out without a fight.
“Nah, we are ready to come out swinging,” Williams said. “We missed our chance last year, but this year things are different. This year it is our time to shine.”