After scoring 16 touchdowns in his first two seasons at WVU, Ryan Clarke did not touch the ball last year under first-year coach Dana Holgorsen.
MORGANTOWN - Once upon a time, Ryan Clarke was a go-to guy.As a redshirt freshman in 2009 and then the following year as a sophomore, the 6-foot, 230-pounder was West Virginia's answer to short-yardage and goal-line situations. He averaged 70 carries a year and scored 16 touchdowns.Then Dana Holgorsen arrived with his high-powered offense. That Clarke's carries would decrease was a given. What actually happened, though, was far more than a decrease in carries.Under the new coaching staff last season, Clarke never touched the football. Not once. Instead, he became the quintessential blocking back, basically a guard wearing a smaller jersey number.
Clarke's reaction? Well, he says all the politically correct things."That's up to the coaches,'' he says when asked if he thinks he'll ever touch the ball again.Or this:"I miss it, but I'm just trying to do whatever I can for our team to be successful.''And finally, this:"At first it's hard to adjust,'' Clarke said. "But when you think about it, it's not about you. It's about the team. It's about us winning. That's all I really care about and if they needed me to block in order for us to win I was willing to accept it.''Here's the thing, though: While Clarke is to be commended for his team-first attitude, there's also an individual element at play, too. After Clarke's first two seasons, when he was doing his best Mike Alstott impression and banging out the tough yards, he was a fairly hot commodity. A lot of those NFL draft sites that clog up the Internet had him listed in their way-too-early draft projections.There's a place in the NFL for guys who are big and powerful and can punch the ball into the end zone or across a first-down line.Another year of zero carries and everyone might forget about Ryan Clarke, if they haven't already.Again, though, Clarke is diplomatic and team oriented when the subject comes up."I figure as long as I carry out my role and do what I'm supposed to do, all that draft stuff and scout stuff will come on its own,'' Clarke said. "I'm not focused on that stuff right now. I'm focused on this season and us as a team winning.''
The truth is, if this team wins it will probably be with Clarke filling the same role he did a year ago. The Mountaineers have backs who can run the football, guys like Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie and Shawne Alston. Alston, at 5-11 and 235 pounds, is probably more suited to the role as a short-yardage back, given that he figures to be carrying the ball in all types of down-and-distance situations and not just as a specialist.That doesn't mean, however, that Clarke doesn't miss having the ball stuck in his gut."Of course. Who doesn't miss it?'' Clarke said. "But you've got to do what you've got to do. It's an adjustment. It's part of football. You have to make adjustment and deal with things.''Clarke is also enough of a realist to understand that the change in offensive styles wasn't the only reason his carries dropped off a cliff last season. After all, even in a wide-open offense there's a place for a short-yardage guy.There's not a place, though, for a short-yardage guy who occasionally drops the football. And Clarke did just that in both 2010 - his most damaging fumble was in overtime at Connecticut - and again the following spring in Holgorsen's first practices as the team's offensive coordinator."Yeah, I think it was a combination of both,'' Clarke said. "To have that history of dropping the ball and then to have new coaches come in, it's going to be hard for them to trust you. So you've got to take some time to gain that trust.
"If I were them, I probably wouldn't trust me either. It's always been my goal to gain their trust back.''Well, it's been more than a year now, and perhaps Clarke is beginning to capture that rust. He said he's actually been given the ball a few times during team periods of practice, so at least there appears among the coaches to be some interest in finding out if that's an option in games.Still, don't expect Clarke to become that go-to guy again."He definitely showed that if he had to he could carry the ball,'' running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "Hopefully, guys will stay healthy enough that he won't have to. But as a staff and as his position coach, I feel very good about putting him out there and letting him run the ball. But he also got better in the spring and became a better blocker and that will be his role in this offense.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.