CLEMSON — Remove the university and this would be a stop along the way, pure country wrapped around the lakes and tucked at the seams of the foothills. As a kid, it was DeAndre Hopkins’ playground — baseball, then football and basketball.
In his mind, that was the beauty of growing up here.
“We’d go out there to play football in the back yard with no shoes on,” Hopkins said, recalling a freer, less frenetic time. “If you get some glass in your feet, oh, well, stitch it up and keep playing.”
Hopkins never lacked for playmates or competition. His cousins alone could field a pretty fair team in any sport, but football provided the preferred outlet. Daniel High and Clemson were the beneficiaries.
“I feel like we’ve got more talent here than any other place just in this 20-mile radius here,” said Hopkins, to this point the best of the brood. In a few days, he will be the second Daniel player in two years taken in the NFL Draft. “The talent around here is amazing.”
The roll includes Terry Smith, Hopkins’ uncle, who for 20 years held several of the receiving records he broke last season at Clemson. Defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, a cousin, was a second-round pick in last year’s NFL Draft and started 14 games for the Washington Redskins as a rookie.
The tap to the pipeline has been wide open with the flow of current and future Daniel High players to Clemson, including sophomore defensive tackle DeShawn Williams, freshman defensive end Shaq Lawson, freshman linebacker D.J. Greenlee, running back C.J. Davidson and corner Jerrodd Williams. Running back Jae’lon Oglesby, who last fall set a state record for rushing in a single game with 365 yards, committed to Clemson. Greenlee and his father, strength coach Larry Greenlee, are close relatives of Hopkins.
“You run through that family tree and get to DeAndre,” said Kyle Young, an associate athletics director at Clemson and a two-time All-American center. “There’s definitely that, but it’s no different than any small town in South Carolina.
“It is quite impressive, though, when you think about how small the community really is. It’s in the DNA of the community.”
Not all the best players stayed home. Kevin Breedlove and Kent Lawrence played at Georgia. Marq Cerqua was at Furman and Carson-Newman. All three spent at least a couple of seasons in the NFL. Antwan Black was a safety and quarterback at North Carolina. Joel Holliday was a tackle at Alabama.
Not all the best played beyond high school.
“There are plenty of other guys,” Young said. “There were several kids that I played with that I know would have been awesome college athletes and probably would have taken that next step professionally, but they didn’t take care of the little things to be able to take that next step to college football.”
‘CREATING AN ENVIRONMENT’
Young credits coach Randy Robinson with “creating an environment at Daniel that didn’t exist there before.” Not the stereotypical football factory, Daniel holds a high standing academically among South Carolina public schools, frequently producing the top SAT scores in the state.
“When a college coach walks in here, he knows our kids are prepared to handle college work,” Robinson said.
Robinson played for Dick Singleton, who built the foundation during 30 seasons at Daniel, and succeeded Allen Sitterle, whose teams won four state championships in the ’90s. Robinson grew up in the culture and knows the pressure. His teams have played for the Upper State championship three of the past five years, and he described it as “good pressure.”
“My first year we had a losing season, and Daniel hadn’t had a losing a season in 20 years. We were devastated,” he said. “The expectation here is you better make a playoff run every year, and we’ve tried to do that every year since that first season. We want to keep that tradition going. We don’t want to let it down.”
One of the benefits of coaching in a community with one high school is the potential to reach and influence players at a young age. The Clemson Recreation Department has a program for kids starting at age 3.
“If you grew up in the shadows of Death Valley,” said Young, whose older brother also played at Daniel and Clemson, “you either loved it or hated it.”
Daniel hosts a summer camp for youth teams, tutoring the coaches and offering basic skills for the kids, “There’s a system around here, and there’s an expectation,” Robinson said. It was there he heard about Hopkins before he saw him play.
BASKETBALL AS LURE AND DETOUR
“Nuke was a legend on the rec fields down in Central,” he said. “When we got him — wow — they weren’t exaggerating. This kid was really unbelievable.”
Originally, Hopkins was a quarterback, and Robinson had visions of him running the Daniel offense as a freshman much like Vince Young of Texas. But after Hopkins injured a hand in eighth grade, he decided to play only basketball.
“That was a tough year,” Robinson said.
When Hopkins changed his mind the next year, Robinson was careful, playing him initially on defense.
“I moved him in gradually,” Robinson said. “I didn’t want him to get hurt again and bail on me.
“The first game he intercepted three passes, set the school record, and returned one for a touchdown. I kept slipping him into the slot at practice and he kept making plays, so in the middle of the season I started throwing him the ball a good bit. By the end of the year, it was lights out.”
Hopkins continued to play basketball through high school, leading Daniel to a state championship as a senior, and into his freshman football season at Clemson where he sat on the bench most of the year before reluctantly dropping the dream.
“I thought I was going to be an NBA star one day. No lie,” Hopkins said. He’d played pickup games against college players and felt confident in his skill. “I’m a gym rat.
“Now my agent won’t let me play basketball so I kick the soccer ball with friends.”
Robinson plans a wall of honor for Hopkins, Jenkins and the others.
“It’s a big deal,” he said. “This is a close-knit community.”
He does not see an end after Hopkins, with Oglesby a potential top-100 recruit this coming season and teammates poking their heads from the country soil.
“This rising senior class, I’m telling these college guys Jae’lon’s not the only one,” Robinson said. “I’ve got four or five players they’re missing on who I think will eventually receive scholarship offers.”