INDIANAPOLIS — Many might remember A.J. Terrell best as the guy on the receiving end of this play.
And yet, not a lot of people seem to remember Terrell as this guy.
And that's just the way that that goes sometimes.
As a cornerback, that seems to be the way that it goes all of the time. Highlights focus on points, and points are scored by wide receivers: the sexiest position with the most spectacular plays. Unless you're a freshman phenom, you don't get the same national recognition and social media buzz. You just get known as the guy Ja'Marr Chase toasted for the entire national championship. And it couldn't be further from the truth.
"Going out there on the biggest stage, we had a great game," Terrell said of Chase, who he said was the best receiver he ever faced. "I made a few plays early in the game and he made a few plays in the first half and we went back and forth throughout the whole game."
Terrell was asked Friday at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine how you handle the halftime locker room up against a receiver such as Chase, who's been performing at a high level, the adjustments that you make and mentality you take into the second half.
"For me, it was just me being able to understand what happened and that game wasn’t over and having short-term memory at the position of cornerback was key,” he said. “You can put your head down for too long, you just have to play the next play."
The fact that Terrell identified Chase as his toughest competitor is a big deal. Terrell has seen quite the gamut of receivers across his career with Clemson. His 2018 opponents included the Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool; NC State's Kelvin Harmon and the Alabama fleet of Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. He saw South Carolina and Texas A&M in each of the last two years, which included Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards and Quartney Davis.
But when your program has played in back-to-back national championships, you tend to face some pretty good players. That championship pedigree is important to understanding Terrell's pro projection.
A lot of recent Clemson corners have struggled in the league. Cordrea Tankersley and Mackensie Alexander haven't played up to their draft stock, while the jury is still out on Trayvon Mullen. But Terrell has taken on better receivers on bigger stages with more success, never giving up more than 60 yards in coverage during his 2019 season until he ran into Chase in the national championship.
Those big-time games mean something else to Terrell: He's seasoned. He's used to those extra weeks of preparation, of focus and of hits on his body.
"It will help me a lot, just getting to play a whole bunch of long seasons and being able to prepare for a lot of games,” he said. “It’s going to pay off for me in the long run."
The Brent Venables defense pays off as well, as it's one thing to be experienced and another to grow that experience under the premiere defensive coordinator at the collegiate level. Terrell was primarily a man cover corner on the outside of the Tigers defense, but his famous interception to open the 2019 national championship game came as a squatting zone corner and was the result both of film study and great scheme.
"He helped me tremendously," Terrell said of Venables. "He always got me prepared for every moment. He’s a great guy and always wanted to get the best out of me and the other players. And that’s what he got from me. I loved working with him."
But he didn't experience any additional pressure playing under Venables or winning on the outside in pure one-on-one coverage as the Clemson safety room, full of versatile athletes, spun and rotated and switched in the middle of the field.
"You have to trust the system and do what you do,” Terrell said. “I’m out there for a reason — to do my job and if I don’t do my job, they can’t do their job. When the safeties rotate, I just have to hold my own."
Terrell has it all when you dive into the background, and the film tells a better story than highlights against Chase will ever show. As one of the top corners in the class, Terrell's job now is to stand out as best he can in the drills, to prove he has the NFL talent to back up an elite college resume.