At 5-foot-7 and 168 pounds, Clemson midfielder Danny Poe constantly finds himself matching up against bigger opponents, especially in the physically demanding Atlantic Coast Conference.
It did not take long this season, however, for those opponents to learn that Poe, despite his small stature and his role coming off the bench for the Tigers, never should be overlooked.
The junior, who saw limited time last season, has seized his opportunity this year with stunning effectiveness, proving a revelation for coach Trevor Adair. Poe was one of the major factors in Clemson's unbeaten run of nine games to open the season, the Tigers' best start since 1978.
"He's a kid that came in that obviously had to prove himself, and he's taken a little bit longer to adjust," Adair said of Poe. "He's played sporadically on and off, but this year, he seems to have a lot of confidence. [He's] not so much worried about making mistakes, and from that, he's elevated his game."
Poe's increased influence coincided with a move from winger to attacking center mid. From that position, Poe has developed into something of a giant killer. Within a seven-day span recently, he came off the bench to score game-winning goals against then-No. 1 Maryland and then-No. 5 North Carolina, earning himself ACC Player of the Week honors and propelling the Tigers (10-3-1) as high as No. 1 in the polls until a tie at NC State and a loss Sep. 30 at Virginia deflated them a little.
Poe already has more goals (4) than he scored all of last year, and, despite the fact that he has not started a match, his eight points rank fourth on the team.
"I'm definitely more comfortable at attacking mid," Poe said. "I like getting the ball and just turning the ball and spraying balls out wide, putting balls through. I just love it for some reason. It's awesome finding the holes in defenses and finding the right pass, starting the attack, all that stuff."
For Poe, the Maryland goal, especially, will live long in the memory, not least because he grew up in Maryland but was not recruited by the Terrapins.
"The Maryland goal was by far my most memorable," he said. "Just being from Maryland, and being that Maryland was defending national champions, and they were ranked No. 1 coming into the game -- until UNC, it was the largest crowd I've ever played in front of. The atmosphere was just unbelievable."
Adair said Poe has impressed him with his athleticism and quickness and his ability to take on defenders one-on-one. For a player of his size, Poe also possesses strong enough leaping ability to catch opponents by surprise. Against Maryland, in fact, Poe scored with his head off a Dane Richards cross.
Ironically, in the ACC preseason coaches' poll, Maryland and UNC were the predicted top-two conference teams. Clemson was picked to finish fifth despite the Tigers' run to the College Cup last season.
But the confidence Poe has felt this season seems to have spread throughout the Clemson locker room. Adair believes it stems partly from the heightened form of players like Poe, partly from last season's success and partly from the level of experienced talent that arrived this year.
"I do feel that the level of player that we've brought in this year in terms of the two transfers -- Frederico Moojen and David Bell both have played a major impact on the team right away -- that maybe people have underestimated and thought that last year was a bit of a fluke," Adair said. "But obviously, I think the perception has changed now because we didn't lose a game in the spring and beat some very good teams, and went undefeated in the first [nine] games, [having] played four teams in the top 20."
For Poe, a lot of his personal success can be attributed to the perspective gained from last year's NCAA Tournament run.
"After last year's Final Four, I realized, 'Hey these guys are good, but I've got to be pretty good to be where I'm at, be on this team I'm on. So, I think I just realized that I can actually do this and went out and did it," he said.
Adair believes his team as a whole benefited in a similar fashion.
"Being able to win four straight games in the NCAAs without giving up a goal, being able to beat some very good teams down the stretch -- not that they didn't feel like they could play, but it took us a while for some of the new players to jell and develop and get used to the system," Adair said. "Definitely, you can tell that the team is playing with a lot of confidence right now, and that's all been carried over since that sort of run in the College Cup."
What has surprised outsiders, however, is how quickly the newcomers jelled with those already on the team and the depth Clemson possesses as a result. Brazilian Freddy Moojen already has forged such an effective partnership with Richards up top that the two have combined for 16 goals.
"Dane is the fastest player with the ball at his feet that I've ever seen; I mean, he's just got outright pure speed that's very, very hard to defend," Adair said. "Freddy is a pure goal scorer. In front of goal when he gets a chance, he very rarely misses, so we've worked our system around to where Dane and Bell and some other players can provide Freddy with some opportunities."
Those players, Poe believes, have made Clemson a far more potent attacking side than even last year's Final Four team.
"This team, this year, our attacking ability is unbelievable," Poe said. "Dane, Freddy Moojen, David Bell -- we have probably the two fastest guys in college soccer between David Bell and Dane Richards. Just the abilities that they have, it's just unreal. And our defense is solid. We're just all-around a very solid team. There's not really a weakness in our lineup. Compared to last year's team: Yeah, we were good last year, but this year, if any team could win it all, it's definitely this team."
Mike Hanzel covers men's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached on email@example.com