CLEMSON — An hour before Dutch Fork High School kicked off with T.L. Hanna in the 2020 South Carolina state title game, one side of the Benedict College bleachers was more alive than the other.
T.L. Hanna’s fans came early, and they cheered every time a Dutch Fork receiver dropped a pass in warmups. Jason Barnes, who was the receivers coach at Dutch Fork, recalls their enthusiasm only because of what it inspired Antonio Williams to say.
“Coach, they're just happy to be here,” Williams said. “We’re about to kill them.”
Barnes, a former receiver at South Carolina, now an offensive analyst at Coastal Carolina, bursts out laughing as soon as he repeats that line. One, because it’s 'Tonio, and 'Tonio rarely says anything.
And, two, the words he spoke in that moment perfectly illustrate the quiet confidence of a 5-foot-11, 190-pound “scrub,” as Barnes will jokingly call him, who found his way to Clemson and now leads the Tigers in receiving as a true freshman.
In personality, Williams can be as unassuming and hard to read as his route-running. But his critiques are as sharp as his cuts on an out route.
He is so chilled out, and football is such a game to him — not much more — the taunts of the T.L. Hanna contingent seemed a little over the top to him. On the Dutch Fork side, they were more subdued, because they had witnessed four straight titles. They expected to win, just like Williams.
“They're just happy to be here,” Barnes repeated, because he can’t get over how fitting those words were.
Dutch Fork beat T.L. Hanna, 28-6, for a fifth straight title. Williams just knew.
“He’s not one of those kids that overthinks the moment,” Barnes said. "Yeah, it’s 100,000 people here. But at the end of the day, it’s just football. Just go out there and have fun.”
Just months into his Clemson tenure, Williams has had his share of fun.
Surrounded by tomahawk chops at Florida State, the freshman blew the top off the Seminole secondary with a 59-yard score. At home in Death Valley, he had Louisville defensive backs tripping over their own feet on his way to 10 catches, slipping inside soft man coverage on a slant touchdown — “That’s a no-no,” Williams said — and breaking so suddenly on his out cuts that the sideline was an open runway.
It does pain Barnes that Williams’ fun will have to come at USC’s expense this week. As a Gamecock, he wants USC fans to read — in big, bold letters — that he pitched Williams on staying in Columbia and using his cat-quickness to USC’s advantage. But Williams is very much his own person.
He’s extremely competitive. But he is so laidback that it was almost impossible for Barnes to get Williams to arrive on time for early morning workouts. 'Tonio liked his sleep too much.
He’s a touchdown waiting to happen. But he has no clue what to do once he crosses the goal line. Barnes’ most enduring image of Williams comes from the 7-on-7 circuit, right after a one-handed touchdown grab that instantly went viral. Williams just handed the ball back to the referee and walked off the field like nothing happened.
He holds some things so close to the vest, Barnes really had no idea where Williams would land in the recruiting process. But there were moments of blunt honesty.
Barnes tells the story of when Notre Dame entered the picture in early 2021, but the Fighting Irish receivers coach wanted Williams to understand the parameters of attending a Catholic institution.
At first, Williams was outwardly excited by Notre Dame’s interest, which was rare. But after diving into the details of a stricter campus environment with Barnes, his enthusiasm took a swift turn.
“Based off of that information, would you consider Notre Dame?” Barnes asked.
“Nah, coach, I’m not going to Notre Dame,” Williams replied.
And that was that.
A twitchy 'scrub'
Barnes is amused by these stories, because Williams is just so different. That’s something his mom, Courtney Holloway, swore up and down when she dropped the little scrub off for his first workout with Barnes as an eighth-grader. Barnes knew the family because Williams’ step-dad, Murphy Holloway, a basketball player, crossed paths with him at USC.
But too many parents swear their son is a basketball and football star and they are oblivious to the truth. Williams didn't look like a specimen, either.
“Yeah, whatever,” Barnes thought. “We’ll see once we get on the field.”
But Courtney’s appraisal of her son seemed less biased once Barnes saw the kid move. He was fast. Super twitchy. He was quiet, but intensely focused. He never dropped the ball.
Barnes went back to Courtney, hat in hand.
“I didn’t believe you,” he said. “But after that workout, this kid is going to be pretty dang good.”
He could say that with some degree of certainty because Dutch Fork had its share of star receivers, including future Tennessee standout Jalin Hyatt, Charlotte-bound Elijah Spencer, and the speedster Gage Zirke. Even if Williams liked to sleep in, he couldn’t stay in bed too long, because the competition at Dutch Fork was too intense.
Barnes can’t take credit for the unique traits that helped Williams excel. But he will claim some responsibility for the way he runs routes.
At Dutch Fork, Barnes preached running every slant, every curl, every corner route five different ways. Switch up the releases. Give them inside and outside fakes. Look one way and then go the other. Sell something, every time, because the defensive back should never know what’s coming.
“It’s going to be hard to cover that guy, as fast as he is, as twitchy as he is, if he understands how to get open multiple ways,” Barnes said.
He may have looked like a scrub, but Williams could get open, and colleges noticed.
In October 2020, Williams earned offers starting with Wake Forest, Coastal Carolina, and Charlotte. A month later, South Carolina jumped in the mix. Oregon and Tennessee were calling in December, and Georgia and Michigan in February.
But in the state of South Carolina, it’s hard for a receiver to go without a Clemson offer. The Tigers didn't officially grant Williams a spot in their 2022 class until November 2021. It was the last scholarship offer he would receive.
“Clemson is probably the best program in the country. It’s an honor to receive that offer,” Williams said. “I don’t think, at first, it’s like ‘Alright, I’m coming to Clemson.’ I still had to think about it a little bit. But it didn’t take long.”
Barnes couldn’t be entirely sure what would happen. Williams’ step-father attended USC, but played his ball at Ole Miss. Courtney was an Ole Miss and Clemson alum. If he had outsized influence on the decision, Barnes would have pulled in the opposite direction. But he leaves it up to the player.
And it's hard to argue against a program that has produced Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Williams, Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, and others. It has claimed “WRU” for a reason.
“We play this game so we can play on Sundays, achieve a dream of playing in the NFL, be able to make X amount of money and buy our mom whatever she wants," Barnes said, "and Clemson has been doing an exceptional job at that.”
“I’ve never asked him why he picked Clemson,” Barnes continued, as he let out a laugh, “because I totally understand why he picked Clemson.”
On the Tigers' side
Now that Williams stands on the opposite side of South Carolina-Clemson, Barnes said he has tried to explain the rivalry to his protégé. He's not sure, though, how much its intensity registers for such a laidback young man.
Case in point, there was a reported incident this past offseason where Williams attended a South Carolina football camp to watch his former Dutch Fork teammates compete. He was asked to leave.
It would be very much like 'Tonio to think a Clemson-bound athlete could show up on South Carolina’s campus and no one would notice or care.
Williams' mom also sent Barnes a No. 0 Clemson jersey to frame and put in his man cave. Barnes clarifies, "Tonio will be the only person who can put something Clemson in my man cave."
Clemson has become Williams' home. There was the inevitable learning curve, but Tigers coach Dabo Swinney raises a hand to illustrate Williams’ trajectory once he picked up the offense. It was up like a rocket.
“He’s just a very, very ultra-competitive kid, but (the way he) carries himself — you’d never know he was in the room,” Swinney said. “You would never notice him. Until he gets on the field.”
Williams is basically the evil twin of Clemson's star freshman of 2021, Will Shipley, who plays angry and turns ball-of-energy on the sideline. Shipley can always be heard. 'Tonio flies under the radar, off the field and on.
As a slot receiver, he has a knack for finding the soft spot in a zone, which has been invaluable to quarterback DJ Uiagalelei. He's so consistent and poised in catching the football, Uiagalelei has hit him 48 times for 512 yards.
"He’s a chill guy," Uiagalelei said. "I think his demeanor says it a lot. He has confidence in himself and you can see it by the way he plays. He just does an unbelievable job of just being him."
As soon as he gets off the field, like he did after bringing in 10 catches for 83 yards on Louisville, Williams reverts to his chill persona. He stood in front of a mob of reporters on Nov. 12, asking them “Who want it first?”
The questions came, and a series of straight-to-the-point, mellow answers stalled the interview at around two minutes. Williams smiled as the crowd went silent, playfully juking his head right and then left, until one reporter said “Alright!” and Williams nodded in agreement.
"Alright," Williams repeated before walking off.
Williams holds a quiet confidence, but he is simultaneously the most humble receiver Barnes has ever coached. His repertoire of touchdown and first-down celebrations is “whack,” in Barnes' estimation, because Williams has never perfected that part of his craft. He's never cared to.
It may be Clemson-South Carolina this week, but Williams is bound to approach this game like all the others.
He's not worried about anything other than getting open.
“It's just football,” Barnes said, thinking back to those words before the T.L. Hanna game. “They're just happy to be here. We’re about to kill them — and that’s exactly what happened. The moment is just football to him.
"We’re gonna handle business. They are not going to be able to guard me. Get me the ball, and everything else will take care of itself."