Clarke could help fix West Virginia's short-yardage woes

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The final installment of West Virginia's Saturday scrimmage gave the offense the ball at the defense's 10-yard line. And the defense knew what was coming.

The Mountaineers repeatedly handed the ball to Ryan Clarke and let him pound into the pile. The redshirt freshman scored three touchdowns, carrying tacklers in from the 5-yard line on one of those scores.

Anyone watching that couldn't help but wonder: Where was this guy last year when West Virginia struggled to convert so many crucial short-yardage situations?

The answer: Clarke was holding onto his college career by his fingernails.

He was recruited to give the team a big back, but not as big as he showed up to campus last summer. The 6-foot Clarke weighed about 260 pounds -- or 30 pounds more than he was supposed to be.

That was bad. Even worse, Clarke didn't take care of his academics during his first semester of college.

"I was going out and partying too much," he said, "not focusing on the right things."

He spent much of last season riding an elliptical bike during practice and watching from the sideline during the game. Meanwhile, the Mountaineers spent all season trying to find someone who could convert third-and-short and fourth-and-short situations. Their inability to do so probably cost them at least two wins.

Toward the end of the season, Clarke decided to change his ways.

"I started realizing everything I was missing out on," he said. "I wasn't playing, and grades were coming out and it wasn't looking too good. I had to make a turnaround."

He went to work on slimming down, cutting out fast foods and all bread. He ate mostly meats and vegetables during five small meals per day.

"It was different," he said. "I feel like if you want to eat healthy, you can't have taste buds. A lot of that stuff was nasty. But I wanted to make the weight, so I had to do it."

He's now down around 230 pounds and says he feels lighter and much faster. Though listed as a fullback, he's not just a blocker. He can provide a power running complement to West Virginia's diminutive speedsters Noel Devine, Mark Rodgers and Jock Sanders.

"I'll tell you what, when he runs the ball somebody is going to get hurt," head coach Bill Stewart said. "It might be him who gets hurt, but somebody's going to get hurt."

During Friday's practice, Clarke took a handoff up the middle, met a linebacker head on and ran through him. The crunch of pads could be heard throughout Milan Puskar Stadium. That's an element that's been missing around the program since Owen Schmitt moved on to the NFL. Clarke isn't nearly at Schmitt's level yet, though.

"I have my own problems I need to fix, like staying low and getting my shoulder pads down while running the ball," he said. "But I like to hit."

Stewart has emphasized short-yardage performance during spring drills and thinks his team will be better there this year. Though the offensive line replaces a lot of parts, it has some big bodies.

Tight end Tyler Urban has gained weight and should be able to give an extra push up front. Along with Clarke, the Mountaineers have Will Johnson and Ricky Kovatch at fullback and will bring in big-bodied backs Shawne Alston and Chris Snook this summer. And quarterback Jarrett Brown can put his 6-foot-4, 221-pound frame to use if necessary.

The Mountaineers have lined up with some two fullback packages this spring while experimenting with different ways to attack those situations. It sure would be nice for them if Clarke became that dependable short-yardage back.

At least they know he's more dependable than he was this time last year.