Note: The following appears in the Charlotte gameday football program.
Trusting the system. That is the self-described key to star Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell’s tremendous success on the gridiron. Although the highly touted NFL prospect could have easily cited his quick footwork, reliable catching ability and tenacious on-ball coverage as the ingredients to his recipe for football prosperity, Terrell instead credited his unwavering commitment to the Tigers’ approach to the game.
Few players could make the claim that they made a game-changing play during the course of a national championship-winning season, yet Terrell can claim that he made two such plays.
“They were big plays made possible by trusting the system. My coaches also put me in a position to make those plays.”
Now a junior, Terrell is a notable name on the college-football landscape, as he established himself as one of the most well-known defensive backs in the nation during his sophomore campaign, due in large part to his playmaking ability. Terrell was a first-year starter on Clemson’s 2018 team, and he established himself as a Tiger legend by pulling off two of the most pivotal interceptions in recent school history.
Helping to spark Clemson’s comeback at Memorial Stadium against Syracuse, Terrell hauled in the Tigers’ first interception of the year with Clemson trailing 16-10 late in the third quarter. He returned the interception 20 yards, enabling Clemson to take over deep in Syracuse territory, which incited a deafening roar from the jubilant Tiger faithful. Clemson converted the turnover into points and went on to defeat the Orange 27-23, thus keeping their undefeated season intact.
Upping the ante later in the season, Terrell produced an all-time highlight by opening the scoring in the national championship game with a 44-yard pick-six. Terrell read a Tua Tagovailoa pass to perfection and ran the intercepted ball to paydirt in a contest the Tigers won 44-16 for their second national title in three seasons.
The first player to score a defensive touchdown in a College Football Playoff National Championship Game, Terrell was quick to credit the culture established by Head Coach Dabo Swinney and the schematics instituted by Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables with providing him with the tools necessary to make a game-altering play of that caliber.
“We come in and work every day,” said Terrell of the Tigers’ approach. “We take pride in what we do. Taking care of the little things has helped us go a long way and keep the winning tradition alive.”
The highest-rated signee of Clemson’s talented 2017 recruiting class, Terrell, who was the No. 13 high-school prospect, was a five-star recruit out of Westlake High School in Atlanta, Ga. In addition to manning the Westlake High School secondary, Terrell showed out at quarterback and wide receiver with his wide-ranging skillset, helping to fine-tune his ball-hawking abilities, which resulted in Terrell becoming one of the most sought-after cornerback prospects in the country.
“Why not play all of those positions?” asked Terrell with a wry smile while addressing his multi-faceted high-school career. “Being able to play several positions on the field shows that you are a true football player.”
Terrell was certainly impressed with the success of Clemson football when he committed to the Tigers, but what won him over was the familial culture of the tight-knit program. Furthermore, Terrell, who is a sociology major, was keen on the possibility of receiving a Clemson University education.
Currently taking part in his third year on campus, Terrell is making the most of his time spent in Tigertown, and he considers committing to play for the Tigers as a life-changing decision that has brought forth nothing but positives.
“My Clemson experience has been amazing and much of what I expected. The reasons I came here were to be in a family-oriented environment, receive a great education and be a part of a great football program, and Clemson has given me the opportunity to be around good people who have made me a better man.”
The close relationships that Terrell has with his parents and siblings translated to the bonds that he now shares with his Clemson coaches. While Terrell is especially close with Swinney and Mike Reed, Clemson’s cornerbacks coach, he looks up to all of the Tiger coaches and does not take that for granted.
In everything that he does, Terrell aspires to be like his father, Aundell, and having so many father figures on Clemson’s coaching staff serves as a constant reminder for Terrell of how hard his father worked to help him become the man he is today.
“My biggest role model is my dad. He always put in so much work with me, going back to when I was young. My dad always pushed me to be who I am today.”
Furthermore, his teammates, particularly his fellow defensive backs, have become like brothers to Terrell, who had to earn his stripes en route to becoming a full-time starter in such a talented defensive backfield. Terrell attributed his preparation on the practice field as being the ultimate catalyst for his playmaking prowess in games.
The Third-Team All-ACC performer is aiming to earn a First-Team All-ACC spot and compete for the coveted Jim Thorpe Award in 2019, and he is fully aware that competing against other incredibly talented defensive backs and lining up across from remarkably gifted wideouts on a daily basis during practices can convert those dreams into realities.
“It brings out the best in you…being able to compete against talent like that every day and every play. That’s key to my game.”
Despite his tireless dedication to achieving his football-specific goals, Terrell has never lost sight of the important role that, thanks to the platform offered by Clemson football, he plays as a humanitarian and leader.
That extends to Terrell’s off-the-field endeavors, including an appearance at the 2019 edition of the Ladies Football Clinic, which is put on by Dabo and Kathleen Swinney’s All In Foundation. Terrell went out of his way to pose for as many pictures and sign as many autographs as possible for the fans in attendance, and he was honored to be around so many courageous women who were fighting or had previously fought the afflictions of cancer.
“That was my first time going. It was a great experience and an honor to be around so many brave women. I had a great time.”
Terrell’s favorite memories from his Clemson tenure are the locker-room celebrations, and he prides himself on being an accountable teammate and exemplifying what Clemson football is all about.
Terrell has also taken pride in playing in front of over 80,000 loyal Tiger fans on gamedays at Memorial Stadium, and it inspires him to be at his absolute best, game in and game out, by knowing that his success brings smiles to the faces of those who cheer him on.
While the reputation that he established for himself as a clutch performer is certainly not taken for granted, staying true to the well-oiled machine that is Clemson’s program is Terrell’s primary goal as it pertains to playing college football. And by trusting the Clemson system and allowing it to positively impact all aspects of his life, Terrell is confident that the sky is the limit, both on and off the field.