n one play, the game was over. In that single play last fall, DeAndre McDaniel showed the instincts, athleticism and attitude NFL defensive coaches crave in a game ever more reliant on the pass.

In 10 seconds, McDaniel decoded Florida State's play, intercepted Christian Ponder's pass, and dealt the Florida State quarterback a season-ending shoulder injury.

They were in awe of McDaniel in his native Tallahassee, Fla., where Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said there were not 10 people willing to bet $10 five years ago McDaniel would become a Thorpe Award candidate owning a 3.0 GPA.

They wondered how the play, how the journey, had happened.

The play

The play call came in with the Seminoles down nine points with 3:44 left in the fourth. Florida State faced second-and-9 at the Clemson 24.

Florida State spread the field with four wide receivers in a desperate comeback attempt. Ponder dropped into shotgun, flanked by a single back.

Examining the variables -- the formation, the down, the distance and the time remaining -- was McDaniel, who covered the inside receiver.

McDaniel knew what was coming based on the formation.

He devours more film than any Clemson defender. He scouts with video coordinator Daric Riley. At his apartment, McDaniel will pop a disc into his DVD player and catch a play here, a play there between chores.

McDaniel knew Ponder was likely to throw something short, near the sideline. Ponder took the snap and looked left. McDaniel jumped the out route. He was surprised Ponder hadn't looked off his receivers more. McDaniel raced at a 45-degree angle between the receiver and the throw like a football-seeking missile.

Study explains part of McDaniel's ACC-best eight interceptions last season, but instinct is more responsible, according to Kevin Steele.

"That's the difference between watching a war movie and being in the war," Clemson's defensive coordinator said. "Watching the film, you can say 'OK this is what's in front of me and this is how I'd react.' But when someone starts shooting at you, how are you going to react?"

After the Music City Bowl, Kentucky offensive coordinator Joker Phillips told Swinney it looked like there were two No. 2s on the field.


In high school, friends told McDaniel to stay home and go to Florida State.

The Seminoles' Doak Campbell Stadium was a punt away from McDaniel's neighborhood. He had a Deion Sanders poster adorning a bedroom wall. Sanders and Charles Woodson are why he wears No. 2.

But staying home brought too many distractions, too much potential for trouble.

"I've seen so much," McDaniel said. "From a person getting shot to a little kid getting run over, I've seen a lot of stuff. I've seen too much stuff."

He had left Tallahassee before, when his grandmother took custody of McDaniel as a fifth grader. She had instinct, too.

Dorothy Richardson took her grandson to her countryside home in Havana, Fla. (pop. 1,700) an old tobacco town 20 miles northwest of Tallahassee.

McDaniel spent many of his middle and high school days in Havana, a forgotten place with an average household income of $27,000. But the place was a safe haven.

"You can't get in trouble unless you walk a long ways to it," Richardson.

He had to get away again after high school to arrive here, to his senior year as an NFL prospect, on the cusp of becoming his family's first college graduate.

But if not Florida State, where?

"I used to attend all their home games," McDaniel said. "But my family didn't want me to be there. They felt like I would have gotten in trouble."

Option B? Well, he liked Clemson's receivers coach.

He liked Swinney's charisma. He could relate to his familiar story of hurt and hopelessness. And like Havana, Clemson rested in obscure countryside.

"I could relate to him and they could to me," Swinney said. "These were folks doing what they had to do to survive."


McDaniel has 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash, but Swinney says he plays like he runs a 4.3

When Ponder released the ball he saw Reed open for a second in a window between the left tackle and guard. After Ponder released the ball, a blur of orange, like a photo flash, obscured the throwing lane.

To grab Ponder's pass, McDaniel secured the ball above his head in stride, which he did in a single fluid motion.

The cliche is defensive backs are defensive backs for a reason -- they can't catch.

McDaniel can.

Swinney recruited McDaniel as a wide receiver before McDaniel requested to play safety.

His youth basketball coach, Charles Gennie, thought McDaniel could be Clemson's starting point guard.

"He has the athletic ability to go and dunk over somebody," Gennie said. "He could get up off the floor."

One of McDaniel's coaches at Godby High, Cleon McFarlane, remembers the first time he saw McDaniel.

"I met him as a sixth-grader, the first time I saw him touch the ball he was just different," McFarlane said. "He had the heart of a lion."

Where would McDaniel be without sports?

Back in Havana, there was football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring.

"He didn't have time for trouble," Richardson said.

"Sports played a big role," McDaniel said. "Grandma played a big role. She wasn't going to let me fail. She always had my back. She always supported me."

Richardson ran the concession stands at his football games.

McDaniel had talent. She wouldn't let him waste it.


McDaniel came down with the ball at the 32-yard line. Ponder was all that stood between him and the end zone.

The interception was Ponder's fourth of the game. He was frustrated. He was the last man. He had an angle on McDaniel.

McDaniel was shocked. Ponder charging at him? He smiled in full gallop. He pointed toward Ponder, as if calling his shot, offering a last warning to get out of the way.

They met at the 7-yard line, shoulder vs. shoulder. The collision separated Ponder's shoulder. It was one of McDaniel's fiercest hits of the season, but it didn't count as one of his 102 tackles.

"I really have never been the type to back down," said McDaniel, the first Tiger to record eight interceptions and 100 tackles in a season. "If you want to be a hard hitter, you just have to go out and do it. I don't always have the best technique; it's just an attitude. You just have to want it."

Attitude has helped and hurt McDaniel.

McFarlane kicked McDaniel off the eighth-grade track team after too many in-school suspensions. McDaniel begged to rejoin the team, traveling by himself to the city meet wearing his jersey under street clothes. When the team lost one of its runners to injury, McDaniel came from the stands making one last plea. McFarlane relented, the lesson had been learned.

McDaniel tore off his street clothes and helped his team to a title.

"He had enough pride in himself," McFarlane said. "He knew if he got in a better situation, he could help his mom, grandmom and all the people around him. He didn't settle and use (his background) as a crutch.

"Dre wanted to be great."

There was the temptation to quit when McDaniel was exiled to Hargrave Military Academy after failing to qualify at Clemson in 2006. Hargrave was tough. Drills and more drills. McDaniel wanted to go home.

"They are calling me saying they're going to get their baby," Swinney said. "I said, 'You go get him and I'm done with him. You leave him there if you want him to have a chance to be successful in life. If you get him, he has no chance.' "

McDaniel stuck it out at Hargrave.

In his return to Clemson there was the frustration of waiting his turn, stuck behind two future NFL safeties in Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons.

There was the assault charge in 2008 involving his girlfriend. McDaniel enrolled in a pre-trial intervention program that allows first-time offenders to have charges dropped.

Perhaps what changed McDaniel more than anything was DeAndre McDaniel Jr. His son, now 3 years old, has helped McDaniel mature.

"Most people don't really appreciate how far he's come," Swinney said, "what he's overcome, how much he's matured and grown up. He's really a funny guy, such a great personality and gentle spirit for him to be such a ferocious football player.

"We have had some long days going way back to when I first started recruiting him, when he was an immature young man and dealing with things that were way out of his control. I've never been more proud of a guy in my entire coaching career."

His last chapter at Clemson began with a phone call to Swinney after the bowl game. Many thought he was NFL-bound, receiving a third-round draft grade.

McDaniel told Swinney he was coming back, no sales pitch necessary.

He wants an Orange Bowl victory. He wants a first-round NFL grade. He wants more. He always has.