Watch: Clemson’s Nyles Pinckney saved the game during his high school playoffs, too
Coach Jerry Hatcher didn’t want or need an apology, but he got one anyway.
He was on the sideline after his star player blocked a punt that led to a recovery and the go-ahead, ultimately game-winning, touchdown — a score the star ensured by hustling downfield and delivering a vicious block on a would-be tackler near the 10-yard line.
Hatcher’s Whale Branch Early College High School Warriors celebrated the moment.
Star player Nyles Pinckney apologized for it.
“(Pinckney) came on the sidelines and said, ‘Coach, I know you didn’t have a (punt-block play called), but I saw it and I hope you’re not mad,” Hatcher said with a chuckle, recalling his team’s November 2015 playoff win.
A little more than three years later, a bigger, faster Pinckney — a defensive tackle sporting Clemson orange and white — would shed a couple of Alabama blockers and blow up a fake field goal in the second half of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, a play that deflated the Crimson Tide and helped secure the Tigers’ 44-16 win.
“He understands ‘the moment’ of a game,” Hatcher said, referring to Pinckney’s high-school days. “And maybe that’s what happened (Monday) night — he understood the moment.”
The moment was instructive, according to Hatcher — and sportswriters such as Saturday Down South’s Connor O’Gara — who viewed Alabama coach Nick Saban’s trick-play call as a sign of desperation.
It was ironic: weeks earlier in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, the Tide had eked out a win over the Georgia Bulldogs and coach Kirby Smart — who was heavily criticized for calling a fake punt near midfield with about three minutes left in a tie game.
And while the moment made Hatcher jump up out of his recliner, it wasn’t surprising — Pinckney was due, Hatcher said.
The coach had watched as his former player worked behind the starters on Clemson’s talented defensive line. But Tigers defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence’s suspension for a banned substance ahead of the playoffs meant Pinckney would play more.
He finished with two solo tackles Monday night, according to ESPN, the big one coming about five minutes into the second half — when Alabama was down 31-16 but had been moving the ball well until they reached the Tigers’ 22-yard line.
The Tide could have kicked a field goal but opted for the fake on fourth down. They needed six yards; a successful conversion followed by a touchdown would make it a one-score game.
Hatcher, watching the game on TV, kept thinking about Georgia’s recent losses — this season’s SEC title game and last year’s national championship game — to Alabama. The Bulldogs had held two-score leads in those contests only to watch the Crimson Tide make adjustments and climb out of the hole.
But this time would be different.
The Tigers sniffed out the fake.
Pinckney stuffed the runner.
Orange and purple confetti would soon rain down on the field at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
“Oh man, (the stadium) just went wild,” Pinckney’s father, Anthony — who was at the game — said Tuesday evening. “It was nice to see him take on a double-block.”
The elder Pinckney was grateful his son made the tackle, and was happy to see Beaufort represented on the big stage.
“Momentum’s a real thing,” Hatcher said. “The casual fan may not notice it, but on the sidelines, it’s a real thing.”
Clemson won its second championship in three years; both wins came against Alabama.
“He looks chunky on TV,” Hatcher said of Pinckney, who, at 305 pounds, ran a 4.8-second 40-yard dash, according to the coach.
“But he’s a thick, hard dude,” Hatcher continued. “He’s cut. ... Nyles, in eighth grade, he ran the 100-meters — he was a sprinter. He played basketball. He’s an athlete trapped in a bigger man’s body.”
Hatcher said he’d recently told Pinckney, a redshirt sophomore, that he’d improve playing behind Clemson linemen such as Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, all of whom are potential first-round NFL draft picks.
Now, he hopes to see the former Whale Branch standout get more playing time.
In November 2015, after Pinckney’s game-winning punt block, his coach told him he didn’t need to apologize.
After all, Pinckney had, as a freshman a couple of years earlier, blocked an extra point attempt against Hilton Head Island High School — a play that gave Hatcher his first win as the Warriors’ coach.
A good memory for player and coach.
A nice moment.