By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The only word Cody Clay could come up with at the moment was “surreal.”
He had just been asked to sum up his season at West Virginia University, and as he looked at it he saw it as far more of a Salvador Dali masterpiece than a Rembrandt.
The year perhaps could best be compared to Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory,” a canvas depicting the surreal image of pocket watches melting in either the early morning or setting sun.
It was a memorable, meaningful image that mixed fantasy with reality, just as Clay’s year and career have done at West Virginia.
He was a man without a position, a kid who came to school with little on his side besides that burning desire to play that overcame the fact that he was a tight end on a team that really didn’t have a need for a tight end.
To see him now, probably the savior of the season, is a testament to the imagination of the coaching staff and the personality and desire of the athlete.
When he arrived at WVU, following a career as a tight end/fullback at George Washington High in Charleston, where he was a 6-foot-3, 260-pound tight end who caught 27 passes for 389 yards and four touchdowns as a senior, the coaches weren’t sure what to do with him.
They first put him at an inside slot receiving post, but that didn’t work. Then they saw him as a center.
“They told me I’d make a great center and I believed them, whether it was true or not,” he admitted.
He moved there and worked hard at trying to grow into the position, which made it a rather enjoyable experience.
“I got to eat more, so that was good for me and I liked that,” he said. “That was fine.”
He gobbled up the steak and the mashed potatoes, all the protein he wanted, right along with a mountain of ice cream.
He got taller, but he could not put on the weight necessary to play offensive line in big-time football, not being able to move the needle on the scale past 260.
There even came a moment last year when running back coach Robert Gillespie approached him.
“He said, jokingly, I thought, ‘I’ve never coached a guy your size before.’ I didn’t think it was a possibility,” Clay recalled.
Nothing came of it. He was back at receiver, knowing he wouldn’t be getting very much playing time, when in camp first Ryan Clarke then his backup, Donovan Miles, went down with injuries. WVU was without a B back, which is the blocking back in the offense.
Clay was asked to move there, to become a fullback again.
“I played fullback all through growing up and even in high school,” he said. “I thought I’d play fullback in college, but I kept growing. You don’t see a lot of 6-5 fullbacks.”
Coach Dana Holgorsen uses fullbacks a little differently than other teams. It isn’t a position for a Jim Brown, Jim Taylor or Marion Motley. The only way they can get their hands on the football is if someone fumbles it.
They block, and that is something Clay has become devastatingly good at.
With Clarke and Miles out with injuries into the season, he has taken to protecting quarterback Geno Smith’s life as if it were his own and to opening up holes for Andrew Buie with a series of bone-crushing blocks.
“I am really proud of that kid,” Holgorsen admitted. “We didn’t know what he was going to do when we recruited him, but the kid is playing well. He loves his role, whether it is tight end or special teams.
“Ryan and Donovan are out with injuries, and he stepped up and played 45 snaps on offense at a pretty high level. He had a lot to do with springing (Andrew) Buie for a lot of those runs. He is a very consistent guy and is a hard worker. He loves his role and understands his role.”
Considering that Clay actually has a background running and catching the ball, Holgorsen can use him in different offensive sets without making substitutions, which he sees as a big advantage.
“Being able to get into the different sets with the same personnel drives defensive coordinators crazy. We are not going to put guys in there that are unable to fill a role. He can run and catch. He is not very fluid at it, but he can get the job done. He does a great job of blocking on the perimeter,” Holgorsen noted.
It was something one of the Baylor defenders noted on Clay’s final play in that game, a play on which he delivered his most devastating block of the season.
“I kind of hit a guy and his whole head — his whole upper body — went back,” Clay explained.
Did the guy say anything after the play?
“No,” said Clay.
He actually had been knocked speechless.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.