PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams considered joining the flock of Atlantic Coast Conference underclassmen who entered the NFL Draft this year.
The NFL draft advisory committee made his decision easy.
Adams said Sunday at the ACC media days that the committee projected him as a fourth-round selection.
"I thought the grade was kind of crazy," Adams said, "but they gave me that grade, so that's all I could go by."
The grade certainly would have surprised just about anyone who has seen the Rivals.com preseason All-American in action. Adams collected 9 ½ sacks last year, more than any other returning ACC player.
Adams, Georgia's Quentin Moses and Nebraska's Adam Carriker are considered the nation's top returning pass rushers. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. currently rates Adams as the No. 3 overall NFL prospect in this senior class, behind only Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn and Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas.
Even though the committee's ruling disappointed him, Adams said he already had been leaning toward returning to school. He plans to earn his sports management degree in December, which will make him the first person in his family to graduate from college.
"That was higher on my list than going to the NFL," Adams said. "I'll have that degree for the rest of my life. I won't be able to play football the rest of my life."
Adams also wanted to help Clemson win its first ACC title since 1991.
The Tigers return eight offensive and seven defensive starters from a team that went 8-4 last year. Clemson's four-game winning streak to end the 2005 season has made the Tigers a trendy pick to unseat Florida State as the conference champion.
"With all the hype and everything, everyone's expecting us to be in a BCS game," Adams said. "You've got to take it game by game. That's a long-term goal - the BCS. You can't go straight to the BCS."
Adams knows a thing or two about beating the odds and achieving long-term goals. He made the rare move from eight-man football in high school to big-time college football at Clemson.
The man who helped him make that transition was former South Carolina quarterback Steve Taneyhill, who coached the eight-man team at tiny Cambridge Academy, a high school so small that Adams said his senior class had no more than 20 people.
Adams helped Cambridge win a state title as a 205-pound senior who played wide receiver as well as defense. He collected 57 receptions for 1,680 years and honed the ball-handling skills that have helped him break up 15 passes at Clemson.
He then recorded 22 sacks at Fork Union Prep in 2001 before moving on to Clemson.
"(Taneyhill) told me as long as you have heart, you'll be fine," Adams said. "I had heart when I was playing eight-man football and people were saying, 'You're not good enough.'"
Adams credits a pep talk from another coach for triggering his breakthrough last season. Midway through the year, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning told Adams that he needed to step up and play a vital role in this defense.
The All-America candidate responded by delivering 4 ½ sacks and eight tackles for loss in the Tigers' final three games of the season. He finished the year with a school-record 29 quarterback pressures.
"It just seemed he had more of a hunger at the end of the season," Clemson wide receiver Chansi Stuckey said. "He was on a mission."
Adams has been on a mission since the first time he heard that he supposedly wasn't good enough to play Division I football.
"I wanted to be the best defensive end in the nation," Adams said. "That's what I'm trying to go out and be."