Promising Power Back

  • June 08, 2009 04:26 PM
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By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
June 8, 2009

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – There are usually two groups of what strength coach Mike Joseph refers to as "special needs" players that he must pay close attention to: the ones who need to gain weight and the ones who need to lose it.

  Freshman Ryan Clarke impressed during spring drills with his power running.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo

Count redshirt freshman running back Ryan Clarke among the weight watchers. The D.C. product came to West Virginia last fall a couple of cheeseburgers shy of 270. Today, he weighs a much slimmer 243 on his way below 240. Right now Clarke certainly passes the eyeball test.

“I feel like I’m in pretty good shape staying and running on the treadmill just trying to keep my weight down,” Clarke said.

The coaches are staying on Clarke because they believe he can help the offense play with a tougher edge. Clarke provides what West Virginia sorely lacked last year: a clock-eating, yard-munching power back.

Ask yourself this question: When was the last time West Virginia was able to preserve a lead by running the football?

Just think back to West Virginia’s final three games of the 2008 season against Pitt, South Florida and North Carolina. In the Pitt game West Virginia couldn’t hang onto a 15-7 fourth-quarter lead because it couldn’t keep the chains moving on third and short.

Against USF and then against North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, West Virginia was forced to put the ball into the other team’s hands when the game was on the line.

Coach Bill Stewart wants to change that. As good as the defense has performed in the past, Stewart knows he can’t keep putting his defense out there and asking it to keep the other team out of the end zone to win football games. Sooner or later it’s going to catch up to them.

That’s why having a big back like Clarke to help possess the football is so important - and that’s why the strength staff has been after him like a chihuahua on a mailman.

“It’s a lot harder and I like it a lot,” Clarke admitted of this year's summer program. “The workouts are a lot longer and (Joseph) has got a good plan for us.”

Clarke admitted there are plenty of things for him to work on.

“I’m just trying to get the little things together still - my speed, picking up my knees and everything else,” he said. “I’m just trying to do my part and help out the team so we can get better.”

Clarke is taking a full load of summer classes in an effort to keep on top of his schoolwork. That has kept him away from the Yoga class Joseph has introduced to the team once a week as a way of improving their flexibility.

“Yoga is not my thing,” Clarke laughed.

Someone asked him if that also applied to yogurt. “Yep.”

Joking aside, Clarke showed during the spring that he could become a reliable football player. There were times when the coaches purposely force-fed him the ball to see how he would react to the pounding that comes with the game on the line and the other team needing to get the football back. In those situations, Clarke generally performed well.

“I’m pretty happy,” he said. “There is always more that I can do but I’m satisfied from where I was at last year. It’s been a big step.”

Clarke came out of spring drills listed No. 1 on the depth chart ahead of sophomore Ricky Kovatch. Clarke said junior Will Johnson is also in the mix.

“(Competition) makes everybody work a lot harder,” Clarke said. “We are trying to beat each other out for a spot everyday.”

Clarke, Johnson and Kovatch have different skill sets. While Clarke is more of a helmet-to-helmet, hit-it-up-in-there runner, Johnson has the athletic ability and the elusiveness to catch the football out of the backfield. Clarke said Kovatch is more of a combination of the two.

“We are like brothers. We just want each other to get better,” Clarke said. “That’s why every day when we’re working out we push each other.”

Because the Mountaineers are once again stable at the fullback position, Clarke hinted that the playbook may include a few more pages for them.

“We are going to rotate a lot and we are going to have to work out playing tight end and fullback at the same time,” he said.

This fall the plan calls for Clarke to be in the game when the football is resting close to the first down stick. Eventually, he would like to have a bigger role in the offense. Naturally that will depend on how hard he works and how much he progresses.

“It’s a lot of pain on the body but it’s worth it at the end,” Clarke said. “It’s going to help us get closer to where we want to be as a team.”