TAMPA – Alabama shut down Washington’s potent passing attack in last week’s semifinal win over the Huskies. The Tide faces a tougher test this week in Clemson’s prolific offense – and not just because of Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Watson unquestionably is a more dangerous quarterback than Washington counterpart Jake Browning, and the danger builds on the outside with star wide receiver Mike Williams.
Williams, a fourth-year junior, might be the best wide receiver in the 2017 NFL draft should he choose to turn pro. He has excellent size (6 feet 3, 225 pounds), good speed (high 4.4s in the 40-yard dash) and tremendous ball skills. He missed all but one series in 2015 with a broken bone in his neck — he ran into the goalpost on a TD catch to conclude Clemson’s first drive of the season — but has returned with nary a problem.
While Washington had a productive duo in John Ross and Dante Pettis, who combined for 32 TD receptions this season, and Ole Miss, Texas A&M and USC had deep receiving groups, Williams – 90 receptions for 1,267 yards and 10 TDs – is the best single receiver the Tide has seen this season.
“I’m really happy for Mike,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Saturday at the national championship game media day. “. . . It was disappointing for him last year to have to sit and watch, but he’s a better player right now because he would have left last year. He would have been a first-rounder last year.”
Alabama strong safety Minkah Fitzpatrick called Williams “big, fast and physical” and is impressed with Clemson’s ability to stretch the field vertically. Clemson has six receivers with at least 33 catches, and the Tigers’ 42 TD receptions is tied for sixth nationally.
“They have a little bit of everything,” Tide cornerback Anthony Averett said.
There’s Williams, a bona-fide star. There’s also Deon Cain, a legit deep threat (33 receptions but for 630 yards and nine TDs), Artavis Scott (73 receptions), Ray-Ray McCloud (49 receptions) and Hunter Renfrow (34 receptions). There’s also tight end Jordan Leggett, who is underrated nationally but has had a big season with 39 receptions for 641 yards (16.4 yards per catch) and seven TDs. Much like Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, Leggett can get deep down the seam and often takes advantage when opposing defensive backs are too focused on Clemson’s wide receivers.
Leggett praised the Tide’s secondary but said having played Alabama last season for the national title had helped in preparation for this game.
“Our offense doesn’t have to look at Ole Miss film to find out how to play them,” Leggett said.
Alabama has allowed just four of its 14 opponents to throw for even 200 yards, but Arkansas (400 yards) and Ole Miss (421) torched the Tide – and that was with standout Eddie Jackson at safety. Jackson suffered a broken leg against Texas A&M, and the Tide has allowed an average of just 152.2 passing yards per game in the ensuing six games. Alabama allowed only 150 in last week’s victory over Washington; the Huskies had been averaging 267.2.
Can Clemson take advantage of Jackson’s absence and get deep?
“Can we get deep?” Williams repeated the question, then began chuckling. “Yeah.”
(You can follow Mike Huguenin on Twitter @MikeHuguenin)
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