Clemson defensive back Andrew Mukuba went from being benched to earning ACC defensive rookie of the year.
He was honored Tuesday and joined defensive tackle Bryan Bresee to give Clemson the first back-to-back winners of the award since it began in 2007. Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, a first-round NFL pick (No. 17 overall) by the New York Giants won in 2016.
Mukuba, a January enrollee from Austin, Texas, by way of Zimbabwe, rose quickly through ranks at the safety position. He was on the field to begin the Sept. 4 kickoff against now No. 1 Georgia, becoming the first true freshman at Clemson to start in a season-opener since at least 1973, when such records began being tracked.
Midway through the season, however, Mukuba was benched. He played in a relief role for three straight games at Pittsburgh, home against Florida State and on the road at Louisville. He had 12 snaps at Pitt, 25 against FSU.
“I wasn’t really playing my best football,” Mukuba said. “I felt like I wasn’t making the plays and being a big impact. It was kind of obvious to the coaches. They see me at my best around here.”
He returned to the starting lineup Nov. 13 against Connecticut and had three pass breakups in the home finale against Wake Forest, followed by another strong game last week in a 30-0 win against South Carolina. Mukuba doesn’t have an interception this season but has broken up nine passes to go with 52 tackles.
“I felt like I was slowly getting my groove back and everything started going pretty well," Mukuba said. "It was hard. But I feel like I managed it pretty well by just staying focused, not focusing on the outside noise and just being inside-out. That’s what helped me a lot.”
Clemson running back Will Shipley finished runner-up to Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke for offensive rookie of the year and overall rookie of the year, for which Mukuba was third. Shipley leads Clemson with 678 rushing yards (5.2 per carry) and 10 touchdowns.
Clemson (9-3) missed out on a chance to win a seventh straight ACC championship as Wake Forest won the Atlantic Division and will play Saturday night against Pitt at Bank of American Stadium in Charlotte. Afterward, the Tigers will wait to receive their bowl invitation. The most likely destination seems to be Dec. 31 (11 a.m.) at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida.
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Clemson's Andrew Mukuba: From benched to ACC defensive rookie of year