The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

November 20, 2010

Clarke puts past behind him

LOUISVILLE — In the end, the resurrection of Ryan Clarke as a fullback for West Virginia University had nothing to do with drills centered upon holding onto the football or watching film clips to see why he fumbled twice against Connecticut, once trying to go into the end zone from the 1 in overtime.

It has to do with a very small word that has a very large meaning — T-E-A-M.

On that evening in Connecticut, now three weeks past, he let down his teammates, although they had done a pretty good job of letting themselves down up until that point.

Now, when he needed them, they weren’t going to let him down.

“All of us are the same,” he said during Tuesday night’s interview session that preceeds today’s noon meeting with Louisville at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. “Whoever messes up, we try not to dwell on it too long, just pick ’em back up. That’s what we do.”

See, we haven’t come across that perfect guy for some time now, even before the days when Don Nehlen started coaching.

Players fumble; they throw interceptions; they drop passes. They miss blocks, even miss tackles.

And, yes, coaches even call the wrong play.

The mistakes may be a measure of the player, but they are not a measure of the man.

How he reacts to those mistakes are the measure, and that takes friends patting you on the back, offering encouragement, even offering criticism if it is meant as a means toward improvement rather than words that can strip away whatever confidence and dignity a player may have left.

“I have a close relationship with my teammates,” Clarke, a 240-pound fullback, said.

That is why during the week before Cincinnati, they worked on him, got his mind back out of the gutter and onto football. They closed the doors and windows to keep the outside away and drew strength from within.

“When Saturday comes, other teams come and try to beat us. I feel like when I’m blocking for Noel (Devine), no one should touch him. When Geno (Smith) is in the pocket, I feel like no one should get to him. Us, being as close as we are, that’s how it feels like,” he said.

And so go the makings of a team, and the ones that don’t really feel like that, that have jealousies running through the locker room, that concentrate on individual success over team success, have problems.

See, this setting is so different than the structure within the university. Players work to make each other better because success draws attention and attention draws scouts.

In the classroom it’s one student pitted against another. They are classmates, not teammates, and the guy with 3.7 GPA is far more likely to get the better job offer than the one with a 2.4, so the bell rings and you go your own way, maybe even studying at the library without even knowing a classmate is there, too.

Getting Clarke back to his best was vital for he serves a very important role on the team. He is charged with protecting the quarterback when in there, charged with picking up a first down on third-and-short situations, and, of course, of taking the ball into the end zone or out of the shadow of the goal post when down close.

In some ways, his is a primitive position, a position evolved out of those who once carried a club and went out looking for food on the hoof.

“It challenges your manhood,” Clarke admitted. “It’s basically you and your brothers, and you see who is going to win out of the group. It feels like there’s a group of people and they are in a cave and they disrespected your family and it’s time to get back at them.”

Maybe that’s grounds for the birth of a nickname — Ryan “Caveman” Clarke.

He is back to who he was before the Connecticut fumbles.

“Right now,” he said, “I’m ready to go. Nothing is bothering me. Everything in the past is gone. That Monday, I was dwelling on the things that happened the week before. Now, everything from the week before is out of my head.”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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