MORGANTOWN — The NFL Draft begins Thursday with the first of three days of picks and coverage, and it started two weeks later than normal this season, which means the finish is delayed as well.
That might be a big deal for West Virginia’s Will Clarke. Exactly how big? That’s the question. And the problem.
Clarke attended and performed admirably at the East-West Shrine Game, the Senior Bowl and the NFL draft combine. At each, he was measured and listed as 6 feet, 6 1/8 inches tall. Yet when the people at WVU’s pro day in March took the measuring tape to the Pittsburgh native, Clarke found out he’d shrunk 1 1/8 inches.
“Maybe,” he said, “I parted my dreads a different way. Hopefully my spine isn’t shrinking.”
So time is something of the essence for the defensive end, who could play there or as an outside linebacker in the NFL. Clarke, who said he’s talked to all 32 NFL teams and that the conversations about his role and his future have varied about as much as imaginable, figures to be drafted Saturday, which is reserved for the fourth through seventh rounds. Or it could happen in the second or third rounds Friday.
Opinions are mixed on Clarke. A scouting report at NFL.com touted Clarke’s “long, athletic, muscular” frame and said he was “smart and coachable,” but also called him a “linear, vanilla pass rusher” who actually struggled with his size and “shrivels against double teams and is too easily uprooted.”
That said, it predicted Clarke would be picked in the fifth or sixth round. CBSSports.com has Clarke going in the third or fourth round. Most evaluations rank Clarke among the top 100 or so prospects and top 10 or so defensive ends.
Then again, he might be an outside linebacker. Or a combination or each.
“Mentally, you have to be versatile,” he said. “You have to think it as well and not just say you’re a versatile person. You actually have to think you are versatile and come out and perform.”
It all started at the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 18 and the momentum Clarke started there continued a week later at the Senior Bowl. Notre Dame offensive lineman Zach Martin was said to be the best performer in the practices there, but Clarke was hailed as the defensive lineman who gave him the most trouble.
Then the front office wheels started spinning. Teams have talked to Clarke about adding weight to his 270-pound frame and playing defensive end in a 3-4, about staying the same physically and playing end in a 4-3 or about standing up as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Clarke said teams haven’t compared him to players, but have shown him clips of how they envision using Clarke.
Each idea is different. Defensive ends have different assignments and responsibilities in a 3-4 and a 4-3. Playing linebacker would be almost completely new to Clarke, who rarely ever stood up at WVU, but who might have a chance to do that in the NFL to make the use of his height, his 34-inch arms and his mobility to pressure the passer and obscure passing windows.
Perhaps that’s why he was running 40 yards down the field and covering routes and defending passes at WVU’s pro day.
“That was a bit of a curveball, but being at the combine, I was kind of familiar with the idea,” Clarke said. “Teams wanted to see me doing some linebacker stuff, so I was prepared for that.”
Clarke also made the most of the support system he and others like him enjoy at WVU. Former star defensive end Bruce Irvin, who was drafted in the first round two years ago as a player who could double as an outside linebacker, helped Clarke prepare for the combine and the pro day by running Clarke through the drills he went through.
Clarke then worked out with teammates at different positions. He spent time with Shaq Rowell on defensive line drills and linebackers Dozie Ezemme for outside drills and Doug Rigg for inside drills.
Then Clarke nailed it first at the combine and then at the pro day, where he only did a few things because his performance at the combine was too good to risk not repeating. The workouts backed up what he did as a senior, when he ranked second in the Big 12 with 17 tackles for a loss, including six sacks.
“A lot of teams like my size and how I can move for my size,” he said. “Things like that and some of the strengths I can show with having long arms are working out for me. But right now, there’s really not much I can do until I get to go wherever I go and work as hard as I can.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.