Note: The following appears in the Syracuse football gameday program.
The game was scoreless through the first quarter. After another unsuccessful drive shortly into the second quarter, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets were punting again for the fourth possession in a row and seventh time between the teams in the game.
Lined up at his own 18 yard line, Georgia Tech’s punter was ready to receive the ball. As the ball was snapped, Clemson’s #27 fought through the Georgia Tech defensive line and blazed past the protectors.
Reaching the punter, he lunged and fully subdued the outgoing ball, which was recovered by Brannon Spector and returned to the Georgia Tech five yard line. The ensuing Tiger possession ended with a Will Shipley touchdown and the first score of the contest, as the Tigers went on to rout the Yellow Jackets by a score of 41-10.
Carson Donnelly had just recorded Clemson’s first fully blocked punt since 2015, and it was the first of two blocked punts in the game by the Tigers, giving the offense a vital opportunity to score.
Hailing from Birmingham, Ala., where he grew up with his parents and younger brother, Donnelly attended high school at Briarwood Christian School, where he was a defensive standout. His father, Chris, was a teammate of Head Coach Dabo Swinney at Alabama, which is a unique connection shared between the families and part of the reason Donnelly chose to attend Clemson.
While originally recruited by smaller schools, Donnelly’s interest in Clemson was piqued after attending Swinney’s football camp before his final year in high school.
“The summer going into my senior year, I came to Clemson’s football camp and Coach Swinney ended up offering me a preferred walk-on spot. It was a really cool moment, and I just wanted to dream big and take advantage of that opportunity. My first year here was in 2018, and I was ready to go in full speed and take advantage of every opportunity.”
Now holding a full scholarship and recording frequent time on special teams and snaps on defense, Donnelly is nothing short of grateful for the opportunities presented to him as a Tiger, and he looks forward to enjoying the remainder of his final football season.
Embracing the grind has been a constant theme of Donnelly’s life during his time in Tigertown. Starting out as a walk-on, he knew the importance of being ready for whatever opportunity was presented. Traveling to his first postseason game during his sophomore year in 2019, he recorded his first career tackle in the ACC Championship Game against Virginia.
“During that ACC Championship Game, I remember Coach Swinney looking over at me and asking if I wanted to run it on the kickoff. I went in and recorded a tackle. Then during the opener of the next season, they put me in late and I made another tackle, and then I finally got a start on special teams and took off with it.”
Since that 2019 season, he made multiple tackles, including several special teams stops, in both the 2020 and 2021 seasons. While already making waves with his blocked punt in the season opener, he looks forward to continuing as a key member of the Tigers’ special teams units throughout the remainder of the 2022 season.
“I take every chance I have to show that I can play on special teams. Starting out on special teams let me start rotating in on defense, and I was able take advantage of the opportunities that I have now.
“It’s been awesome to block a punt in the opening game. I have usually always been behind the scenes, but that one was definitely a highlight. It was probably my most special moment here so far.”
In addition to performing under the lights, Donnelly has been a P.A.W. Journey ambassador since the fall of his second season. He notes the importance of P.A.W. Journey and the impact it has had on his Clemson experience.
“In high school, I was a leader on my team, and when I got to Clemson, I realized I needed to get a voice on the team to continue being in that leadership role. P.A.W. Journey has been one of my biggest blessings here, and it gave me that initiative to continue being a leader.
“Having the ability and opportunity to get in a room with other guys and discuss and share opinions on team matters is really cool. It’s also a great chance to grow as a man and learn from Jeff Davis and the P.A.W. Journey staff.”
Through P.A.W. Journey, Donnelly has participated in multiple microinternships. While he attempted to take part in an internship with Cisco two years ago, COVID-19 struck, and he was unable to fully complete it. This past spring, he participated in another Cisco internship due to his love for the company.
“My most-recent internship was virtual, so I was able to go home and spend time with family while also working. It was a really cool opportunity provided to me, and I made connections there that will last a lifetime. It was awesome.”
A four-time ACC Honor Roll member, Donnelly graduated with his degree in marketing in May 2021 and is currently pursuing his MBA with plans to graduate in May.
Mentioning the increased toughness of balancing school and football as a graduate student with the addition of night classes, he has continued to remain steadfast to his “embrace the grind” mentality that he developed as a younger walk-on.
While unsure of his immediate postgraduate plans, he believes he could excel in a coaching or sales role, and he is ready to take advantage of any chance he gets.
“My big word this year is ‘enjoy.’ I’ve really made a point to enjoy my fifth year and this last season, and then to continue to enjoy whatever comes next.”
Regardless of what comes next, Donnelly is sure that the skills he developed and challenges he has faced during his time at Clemson will stick with him for the remainder of his life.