CLEMSON -- Before the ball left the hand of Miami quarterback Jacory Harris on Saturday night, Clemson's DeAndre McDaniel broke from covering a deep post -- a potential home-run pass -- rushing forward to jump a drag route.
Harris released a throw intended for Aldarius Johnson in the middle of the field. In a blur, McDaniel crossed in front of Johnson, intercepting his nation-best seventh pass of the season, returning the pick 26 yards for a touchdown.
McDaniel's "instincts" are often praised. Listening to commentators, one would think he has some sixth sense of knowing where to be and when to be there. But for the Clemson junior safety, the art of the interception -- the "instinct" for it -- is as much the result of study as it is innate.
During the week, McDaniel spends an average of two hours more than the rest of his defensive teammates scouting opponents via video.
"There's only a few routes they can run," McDaniel said. "It's just out of what formations they can run them, what part of the field they can run them.
"We get (video) cut-ups on Wednesday. I'll see if a quarterback eyes receivers down, leads you to the ball. If he doesn't look at receivers, you see where they line up, you see what routes they run."
The scouting often takes place in the window-less, fluorescent-lit offices of graduate assistants Daric Riley and Wesley Goodwin.
Using an advanced video editing system, Riley says the Clemson staff can break down each opponent by specific personnel groups. They further filter by formation: what teams do when the quarterback is under center or out of the shotgun, how often they run to the right side, etc.
The idea is to unearth tendencies, or as Riley says, "secrets"
"We try to give them as much of that as possible." Riley says.
McDaniel is so proficient intercepting passes, he has caught as many balls from quarterbacks this season as have Clemson receivers Marquan Jones (7 receptions) and Xavier Dye (6).
The production has amazed his defensive backfield mates, especially since McDaniel often plays in the box, leading the team -- and fourth in the ACC -- with 57 tackles. McDaniel is making a case for ACC defensive player of the year.
"He just really, really knows the game," Clemson safety Rashard Hall said. "I'd have had two interceptions (at Miami) if I had listened to him."
Riley said McDaniel was particularly aided by film study against the Hurricanes.
"We found some things," Riley said. "Coach (Kevin Steele) asked me to show them what I found and why I found those things. DeAndre wanted to sit down on Thursday and again on Friday to kind of go over those things."
When Steele said after the Miami game that McDaniel is simply a "football player," it is code meaning he also enjoys football homework.
"When we finish meeting Thursday, we're done, he can go home, but he stays and watches extra tape," Steele said. "He absorbs things."
Of course McDaniel wouldn't be tied for the national lead in interceptions with UCLA's Rahim Moore if not for athletic gifts.
The 6-1, 200-pounder has excellent ball skills. McDaniel's intramural basketball team has won three straight titles. And Steele said he'd also be a great center fielder, thanks to his outstanding depth perception and tracking skills.
"Not everyone can judge a (fly ball) and get under it at the right place at the right time," Steele said.
The junior has been promised one offensive play by Dabo Swinney, and Swinney jokes that he "had his chance" to play receiver when Swinney recruited McDaniel out of Tallahassee, Fla.
McDaniel said "he'd love" to be involved in an offensive play or two each game next year. But one has to wonder if there will be a next year for McDaniel at Clemson, or if the junior will be NFL-bound.
The Web site NFLdraftscout.com has McDaniel rated as a second-round draft pick.
And his stock is rising.
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