CLEMSON, S.C. - ]Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott walked over to receiver Deon Cain shortly before the Tigers left the locker room to face Ohio State with a smile and a simple message: "Welcome to the playoffs."
It has been a long, fretful national title game journey for both Cain and Mike Williams, two of Clemson's most dynamic receivers. Williams had to watch the 45-40 loss to Alabama last January from the sidelines, a frightening neck injury in the first quarter of the season-opener knocked him out for the year.
For Cain, it was his own mistake that cost him. He was sent home along with two other players -- suspended for breaking team rules -- two days before Clemson's 37-17 win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Cain also missed the national championship loss.
Now, both are back and eager to make an impact against No. 1 Alabama (14-0) on Monday night.
"They're very excited," teammate and fellow receiver Artavis Scott said. "Who wouldn't be when you're playing for a national title."
Williams was a 1,000-yard receiver clearly marked as Clemson's main target in 2015 when he collided with the goal post stanchion making a touchdown catch against Wofford. Williams lay still for several, uncomfortable minutes until he was strapped to a backboard and taken off the field on a cart.
The diagnosis was serious -- a neck fracture -- but Williams' made a strong recovery and an even stronger return in 2016 with team highs of 90 catches, 1,267 yards receiving and 10 touchdown grabs.
"I've gotten better in all parts of my game," Williams said. "Running routes, blocking, reading defenses, that was my goal."
Williams thought he had nothing more than a bruise until he felt his body tingling and go numb. There was no surgery and Williams said the same day it happened doctors told him he'd be able to play again. But it was difficult for him to watch games and not be able to participate.
"We were winning all the time so I just thought, 'Good job,'" the 6-foot-3 Williams said. "But we lost the national championship game and I thought, 'What if I were out there?'"
It's a question Cain wondered, too.
He was so remorseful about his mistake -- Cain still won't discuss specifics about what he did wrong -- that he shut off his phone and did not watch Clemson's loss to Alabama. During his time away from the field, Cain decided to work his way back onto the Tigers and rebuild the trust with his teammates dented by his suspension during last year's playoff run.
"I put this program on a pedestal because they've done a lot of stuff to help me," he said. "I just wasn't mature enough to see the opportunity they were giving me."
Cain, like Williams, has made the most of his time back on the field. He leads the Tigers front line receivers with 19.1 yards a catch with 640 yards on 33 grabs. His nine touchdowns are second behind Williams.
Williams' time at Clemson will end after the national championship, the junior set to leave the Tigers for the NFL draft where projections have him as likely the first receiver to be picked. He could've left last season and finished his rehab in the pros, but instead returned for a final college season.
"I'm really happy for him with all he's been through," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "He's better for having comeback."
Cain, from Tampa, Florida, hopes to finish off a redemptive year in his hometown at Raymond James Stadium on Monday night.
"It like a dream come true," he said.
Williams had six catches for 96 yards in Clemson's 31-0 Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State last Saturday night. Cain had one 9-yard reception. Neither had a touchdown. Both, though, are prepared for what they missed last season against Alabama.
"The only ones happier than those guys," Scott said, "are the coaches and (quarterback) Deshaun Watson."