Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and the talent-laden Clemson defensive line get a lot of the credit for just how imposing they defense as a whole is, and rightfully so. There’s a chance each of the four starters there could wind up being first-round picks in the NFL when they decide to leave school.
But Dorian O’Daniel, the senior linebacker in just his second season as a starter, has had just as much to do with that as the big guys up front have.
It’s hard to argue that O’Daniel is a diamond in the rough, but that’s not slight to him. After all, he was the No. 40 prospect in the country — per Rivals’ rankings — when he signed with Clemson in 2013 from Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Maryland, and the sixth-ranked outside linebacker according to Rivals as well.
He was a force on special teams in his first two years after redshirting in 2013, and that parlayed into a strong inaugural season as a starting linebacker in Brent Venables’ defense last season. His nose for the ball reared its head a few times in Clemson’s national championship run: O’Daniel picked off his first career pass against Troy, and he recorded a strip-sack against Pitt.
In five games this year, he’s emerged. The fifth-year senior is one of Clemson’s leaders on a unit that chokes the life out of opponents, and with O’Daniel lurking behind the defensive line like a heat-seeking missile, opponents are understandably encountering problems.
“He’s a great example of a guy that’s been patient, and who’s worked incredibly hard and has developed into a really, really good player,” Venables said of O’Daniel, per Marcel Louis-Jacques of the Anderson Independent Mail.
O’Daniel has already recorded 70 percent of the tackles he logged last season — and in eight fewer games, none of which might be more impressive than his performance against Auburn when he led everyone with 14 total tackles.
Where he’s been an absolutely game-shifting force this season, though, has been his ability to generate turnovers and do something with them. Twice he has picked off a pass, and twice he has returned it for a touchdown.
Against Louisville, with Clemson ahead by two scores but not out of the woods yet, O’Daniel intercepted Lamar Jackson and scampered 45 yards to the end zone, putting the game out of reach.
And on Saturday, with Virginia Tech driving and Clemson again holding a two-possession lead, O’Daniel came through, driving a stake through the Hokies’ comeback hopes and dreams.
When the game needs icing, O’Daniel has answered the call.
His star is burning bright, and Clemson is all the better for it.
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