CLEMSON — Danny Williams has only played a handful of eighth graders in his nine years coaching Lakeland Christian (Fla.).
He doesn’t make the decision lightly. Coaching at a school that has just roughly 350 students in grades 9-12, depth can sometimes be an issue. But he’s never going to put a young player on the field if they can’t help Lakeland win football games.
The most recent eighth grader to play for the Cougars was current Clemson defender Cade Denhoff. Now an early-enrollee at Clemson, the defensive end played five seasons for Williams.
“He was very, very sound as far as using his hands,” Williams told ClemsonSports.com. “Obviously by the time he was a senior, he was dominating linemen and doing things that he couldn’t do early on. But I think the thing that set him apart from everybody else is you were going to get his best. If you took a play off, he’s running a play down from the backside and then tackling in the backfield.
“You know, you couldn’t take plays off against him. You had to account for him early on as a young kid because he played so hard, and he didn’t take reps off. That’s his biggest attribute, it’s just his effort. I mean, I don’t know if we’ve ever had a kid that played like he did the whole time he was there.”
Denhoff made himself a known player immediately as an eighth grader. He finished his rookie season at Lakeland with 11 tackles in nine games and tallied 44 tackles, with seven sacks as a freshman. By the end of his sophomore season — when he forced three fumbles — Denhoff was rising on recruiting boards.
Clemson didn’t offer him until July 2019, but he quickly formed a strong relationship with defensive ends coach Lemanski Hall. With a 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame, the Tigers saw a place for him on their defensive line. A top-100 player in the class of 2021, 247sports.com listed him as the No. 8 defensive end in his class.
“I mean, they’re very professional, they’re very upfront honest about the whole recruiting process,” Williams said. “Everybody goes and offers all these different type of kids, and Clemson kind of has a process, how they handle things. And they were one of the later ones that offered them. But I think just knowing that’s how they do things and being genuine through their word — that really stood out to him.”
Denhoff’s potential showed in Clemson’s spring game on Saturday. The freshman had two total tackles and a pass breakup for the White team. He’s in a room already featuring Xavier Thomas, K.J. Henry, Justin Mascoll and Myles Murphy.
But if he learned anything from Williams and his time at Lakeland, it’s that he can find a role no matter how young he is.
“Yeah, I think for him, the next step is just just getting a little bit stronger,” Williams said. “I think his abilities there. I think his his next step is just developing. Obviously there’s a gap from high school to college. I don’t want to say he mastered the high school level, but I mean, he was pretty much to the tip of his point there.”