MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - In baseball it’s the closer. In basketball, it’s the sixth man, but in football, it is the short yardage back.
In each sport, one player is usually cast in a role that in most cases is an underappreciated part of the team, despite the large of amount pressure that comes with their job.
Junior fullback Ryan Clarke was the Mountaineers’ short-yardage back last season, and for the most part, he was successful in that role as he had eight touchdowns and 3.6 yards per carry average on a total of 80 carries.
However, after a spring filled with ball security issues and a knee injury that limited his availability and effectiveness, Clarke found himself listed as the third string “B” back behind Matt Lindamood and Ricky Kovatch.
The Glen Burnie, Md., native isn’t discouraged with his place on the depth chart, though. In fact, when asked about it, Clarke’s eyes lit up with excitement.
“It is very motivating actually,” said Clarke. “Of course, nobody wants to see themselves at the bottom of the depth chart. I am not looking at it in a negative way, just as something that I need to get better at.”
The drop on the depth chart was a bit of a wakeup call for Clarke, and he says he has been hard at work to move his way back up to the front of the pack.
“For whatever reason, I am at that position on the depth chart,” Clarke said. “It is my responsibility to try and move up on it. Whether it is lifting, getting faster, or studying film, I will do it.
“I know there is going to be a lot of competition during camp, but that is what our coach wants. He wants you to try and take the next person’s position.”
In addition to trying to regain his role as the team’s short yardage specialist, Clarke said he is trying to become a more complete player because some believe he may one day have a future beyond college.
NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. recently ranked Clarke as the No. 1 junior fullback in his top five players by position evaluation.
“This year, I would like to get on the field more often, more than just on third and short,” Clarke said. “I want to be one of those players the team can count on all the time, not just in certain situations. I would like to be a more versatile player.”
With the installation of Coach Dana Holgorsen’s pass-oriented offense, Clarke should get the chance to completely showcase his ability, including catching the ball out of the backfield.
“Last year, I didn’t do a lot of route running,” Clarke said. “I’ve had to work on my hands and catching passes from the JUGS machine. The coaches have stressed the fact that in this offense there is a lot more passing.”
Despite wanting to develop all of his skills, Clarke knows that his playing time will be directly related to his ability to hold onto the ball in tough situations.
When asked how one practices for holding onto the ball in game situations, Clarke says that he and a football have become pretty close companions over the last few months.
“You take it everywhere with you.” Clarke said with a laugh. “You hold it, you squeeze it, you catch it and you tuck it.”
Even if things do not work out for Clarke as he tries to regain his spot as the team’s short-yardage back, he knows he can also always fall back on his ability to clear the way for other running backs in those tough situations.
“I like to block,” Clarke said. “Blocking can be fun.”
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