Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich
Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has been in the business long enough to have seen some of the best defensive players in the country over the past two decades. He’s coached at Alabama, Florida State, Nebraska, and Tennessee, just to name a few.
It’s not like Steele doesn’t have anyone to compare Clemson safety DeAndre McDaniel to at the national level.
“I know this,” Steele said, “I don’t want to trade him for anybody else.”
It’s easy to see why.
McDaniel is a safety who leads Clemson in both tackles AND interceptions -- the first time anyone has done that at Clemson since Terry Kinard in 1982. That’s no small feat, considering he’s playing for the No. 13-ranked defense in the country, not the 112th, where nobody near the line of scrimmage can make a stop and the burden falls on the last line of defense. McDaniel enters Saturday’s game at NC State tied for first in the country with eight interceptions -- one shy of setting the school season record. He’ll need some help from his defensive front if the record is to be broken this weekend, as NC State quarterback Russell Wilson has been one of the ACC’s most accurate passers (24 touchdowns, nine interceptions), and his feet help him elude pressure.
Considering the mistakes Clemson’s defense forced Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder into last week, though, that record is certainly within reach. Ponder had thrown just four interceptions all season before throwing four to the Tigers, including the last one to McDaniel, a Tallahassee native.
“I felt I was going to be able to produce this season, but I probably didn’t think it was going to be going this well,” McDaniel said. “We’re reaching some of my goals as a team, also. We’re leading our division, and it’s looking good on our side to go to the ACC championship. That was one of my goals, also. All my stats come later. All I’m trying to do is my job. All my stats can go to the side for the ACC championship game. That’s all I want, that’s all I came here for.”
McDaniel’s success can be attributed in part to the prior relationships he's had with his former recruiters -- Steele and coach Dabo Swinney -- but also to the fact he’s been playing his natural position, safety, this year. Last year, McDaniel was used as a hybrid strong safety/linebacker. Steele has known McDaniel since the safety was 14 or 15 years old when they were both in Tallahassee, and installed a similar defense to what McDaniel was used to in high school.
“The defense he runs is so aggressive,” McDaniel said. “That’s my style of football. It fit me real well.”
Despite his success this year, McDaniel wasn’t considered a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which is given to the nation’s top defensive back. Part of the problem was that Clemson had two nominees on the preseason list in Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler. Clemson was the only school in the nation with both starting cornerbacks on the preseason list of 31. It’s possible many voters based their votes heavily only on the preseason lists. UCLA’s Rahim Moore, who is tied with McDaniel for the nation’s lead at eight interceptions, wasn’t a semifinalist, either.
Regardless of why McDaniel was overlooked, it got Clemson fans' -- and coaches' -- attention. Swinney said McDaniel has not gotten the national attention he deserves.
“I don’t know who’s better,” Swinney said. “He’s a guy that you better know where he is all the time if you’re on offense because he is physical, he can tackle, and he also has great ball skills and range. Just a very dynamic player, and he is incredibly smart. Great instincts, sees everything before it happens, and he’s very coachable. I don’t think he’s getting the national recognition he needs, but we’ll just keep on keepin’ on, and hopefully that will all work out.”