CLEMSON — There are no shortage of theories for why coach Dabo Swinney playfully called Clemson junior safety DeAndre McDaniel "a pain in the butt to recruit" recently.
McDaniel figured it might have something to do with the instance he called Swinney, then Clemson's receivers coach, and declared he was dropping out of military prep school just two weeks into his stay. Swinney talked McDaniel's guardians out of picking him up.
Part of it, McDaniel said, had to be the grief his grandfather - a diehard Florida State fan - gave Swinney each time he visited the rural family dwelling in Havana, Fla.
Then there were the lengths Swinney took to connect with the strong women in McDaniel's life: his grandmother and godmother, who have shared the caretaker role in trying to protect McDaniel from the influence of his surroundings - including the influence of his own mother.
"He probably knows my family better than any outsider," McDaniel said.
Saturday's 7:45 p.m. showdown with FSU in Death Valley could be a final homecoming contest of sorts for McDaniel, who attended high school a few miles from the FSU campus. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder is tied for most interceptions in the country (seven) and figures to gauge his NFL stock at the end of his breakthrough season.
A lifelong FSU fan, McDaniel said family members convinced him it wouldn't be in his best interest to stick around his hometown if he hoped to stay focused enough to forge a future football career.
McDaniel committed to Clemson in August before his senior year at Godby High School. A former prep teammate, Alabama running back Roy Upchurch, nearly persuaded McDaniel to switch his pledge to the Crimson Tide, but McDaniel signed with the Tigers in February 2006 before heading to Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy to boost his standardized test score.
Not that McDaniel's college career has gone without discipline issues. In June 2008, McDaniel was charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature following an altercation with his then-girlfriend at his apartment. Earlier this season, McDaniel said he was close to completing the community service terms of the pre-trial intervention program that would expunge the charges from his record.
But McDaniel said his chances of lasting through college would have been much bleaker if he would have stayed home.
"Knowing I have a lot of friends down there, there was going to be a lot of negative stuff," McDaniel said. "With me being familiar with my surroundings and everybody knowing me, I was going to be a big target. And I didn't want to be around it.
"I didn't have no bad friends. But a lot of my friends didn't go anywhere and probably would have tried to persuade me to do things that I wasn't supposed to do. So I wanted to stay away from that."
It seems the influences included the mother he said he still loves and has occasional contact with.
According to Leon County criminal records, Wendy Richardson has been charged with 46 counts from 1991 through May 2009, ranging from grand theft to cashing false checks to drug possession.
At some time in his late elementary school years, McDaniel and his younger sister moved in with their grandmother Dorothy when Richardson was incarcerated. McDaniel's father, Willis - with whom he also remains in sporadic contact - changed McDaniel's given first name from De'Andra to DeAndre sometime thereafter.
Richardson's best friend since middle school, Kimberly Davis, is McDaniel's godmother. And when McDaniel became old enough to drive in high school, he moved in with Davis in Tallahassee, eliminating the cost of a daily 15-mile commute from Havana.
McDaniel considers them family, and Davis alternates her college football attendance on Saturdays between games involving McDaniel and the eldest of her two sons, C.J. Wilson, a freshman cornerback at Bethune-Cookman.
"We love DeAndre unconditionally, and any time you love someone unconditionally, you will make sure their surroundings are good and their circumstances are optimum," Davis said.
Said McDaniel: "They have supported me, man. My grandma raised me to be who I am now."
Before the season, Swinney intimated Clemson might be better at safety this year despite losing a pair of NFL draftees.
The biggest reason was McDaniel, a big hitter with superb ball skills and rangy athleticism.
Numerous teammates consider McDaniel the team's best basketball player, and his intramural basketball team has won three championships in a row.
Baseball was his passion and superior talent, but he gave it up in the sixth grade upon witnessing a friend get hit in the eye, which fractured several bones.
Yet Davis said family members always believed McDaniel was born with football instincts. They were convinced when at age 3 they put a helmet designed for a 7- or 8-year-old on McDaniel for a photo and it fit perfectly.
McDaniel followed his instinct to leave home, and those around Clemson's program insist they have witnessed a progression in his maturity. No longer as rough around the edges, he handles authority figures with greater respect, and he is on track to graduate in August.
"I'm a firm believer that God puts people in your path," Davis said. "And you might not know why, but it's for a reason."