CLEMSON — “Do you want to win any games this year?” Shenekia McClinton asked.
Lance Roberts, a ninth-grade coach at Rock Hill’s South Pointe High School, was taken aback. Of course he wanted to win games, he said. It was the summer of 2014, and Roberts’ team had struggled to move the ball during a 7-on-7 scrimmage against the program’s junior varsity team.
McClinton suggested her son, Derion Kendrick, play quarterback for the ninth-grade team.
“Shenekia, D.K. has told me, point blank, ‘I don’t want to play quarterback,’ ” Roberts said.
McClinton didn’t skip a beat: “If y’all want to win any games, you might want to put him at quarterback. And don’t give him a choice.”
Roberts took the persistent mom’s advice, and South Pointe’s ninth-graders went on to have a dominant season. Then, as the varsity team’s signal caller his junior and senior seasons, Kendrick helped to orchestrate a pair of state championships.
He was a reluctant quarterback; he preferred to play wide receiver, and at Clemson last season he became one of the nation’s premier cornerbacks. But in a 2020 emergency scenario — the Tigers’ entire quarterback room having to quarantine because of the coronavirus — coach Dabo Swinney said Kendrick would likely be back under center.
“D.K. is an option for us, if we need a Wildcat-type quarterback,” Swinney said. “He understands ball-handling and all those things.
"So, we’ve got options, and that’s our job as coaches to be prepared.”
Strait Herron, South Pointe’s former head coach, believes Kendrick would be up to the task. As a senior, Kendrick completed 180 of 255 passes for 2,683 yards and 30 touchdowns against six interceptions, and rushed for 1,194 yards and 20 touchdowns on 119 carries.
Herron said former Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson pitched an offer to Kendrick on playing quarterback for the Yellow Jackets, but by then Kendrick’s mind was set on heading to Clemson and wearing orange.
Herron understood Johnson’s thinking. He had also played Stephon Gilmore, a former star South Carolina Gamecocks cornerback who is now considered the top cornerback in the NFL, at quarterback at South Pointe.
“When you have an athlete with that much talent, I want to put the ball in his hands every single time,” Herron said.
If Lawrence became unavailable, the Tigers would have their pick of redshirt freshman Taisun Phommachanh — a former 4-star recruit — and freshman D.J. Uiagalelei, a former 5-star recruit so talented he sometimes makes Lawrence “look normal,” Swinney said.
The Tigers then have two more freshman quarterbacks on the roster: preferred walk-on Hunter Helms, a Gray Collegiate Academy (West Columbia) product, and James Talton, a St. David’s School (Raleigh) alum who joined the team in fall camp. And redshirt senior punter Will Spiers (a state championship quarterback at Calhoun Academy) has taken practice reps at quarterback.
Swinney is doing everything possible to avoid such a scenario.
“The last thing you’d want to do is quarantine a whole position group,” he said. “If that happens, then we’ve done a poor job.”
Kendrick would probably rather stick to cornerback. After being named to the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award - given annually to the nation’s top defensive back - Kendrick insisted he had no interest in being a “list player.”
“Anybody can be on the list, depending on what they did the year before,” he said. “My goal is to win it.”
A move to the other side of the ball could make that pursuit more difficult. But the junior has already said he’d be willing to help at wide receiver if need be. What about quarterback?
Herron believes Kendrick could provide Clemson a capable option.
He recalled a play from the 2017 state championship game, when Kendrick was a senior. It was a designed quarterback run, and Kendrick had broken away. One defender stood between him and the end zone, and Kendrick stopped on a dime, bringing the defender to the ground.
″(Kendrick) looks like he’s going to fall forward for 2, 3 more yards,” Herron said. “He somehow gets his feet back down, and he just takes off, goes another 40 yards, scores.
“It was one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen.”
The score was called back, though. An official had prematurely blown his whistle, believing Kendrick was destined to tumble to the ground.
Herron feared the error would irk his star, a dogged competitor. Kendrick instead channeled his frustration into success: Four plays later, he scored again.
With that, the South Pointe defense trotted back onto the field. Kendrick, a defensive back only in high-leverage situations, remained on the sideline. Herron needed to protect his quarterback.