After a redshirt season in 2009, Will Clarke saw limited action the following year, playing in just four games before suffering the dreaded season-ending high ankle sprain. In 2011, he came back strong, earning a starting role and playing in all 13 of the Mountaineers games, collecting 34 tackles (five TFLs) and two sacks, including one in the Orange Bowl against Clemson. Clarke logged twelve games in each of the 2012 and '13 campaigns; as a junior, he tallied 26 tackles (6.5 for loss) and a sack; as a senior, he added 49 tackles (with a staggering 17 TFLs) and a career-best six sacks.
Like most of the defensive end prospects in whom the Cowboys have expressed interest, Clarke is long and strong. In his case, its a well-honed country strong. A West Virginia tradition is the Iron Mountaineer, an award (carved out of coal!) presented every year to the best all-around conditioned athlete from his/ her respective sport. Our man Clarke is the only player in WVU history to have earned recognition as an Iron Mountaineer three times over his career. His level of commitment in the weight room seemingly translated onto the field, where he made steady improvements each of his three years as a starter.
Clarke is among the lengthiest of this year's DE crop, topping the DE charts at 6'6" with 34 5/8-inch arms. Notre Dame's Zach Martin was widely considered to be the most dominant offensive lineman at the Senior Bowl, but Clarke gave him fits, largely because he was able to get into Martin's chest due to the reach advantage provided by his long arms. His length (and strength) are evident on tape at Draft Breakdown, where four of Clarke's college games have been cut up for your visual delectation, including a couple of good'uns: the 2012 home tilt against Oklahoma and a 2103 contest versus a good Oklahoma State offensive unit.
As you can see on tape, one of the reasons Clarke intrigues teams is his "position flex": in his sophomore season, Clarke started eleven games - seven at DE and four at defensive tackle. As a junior and senior, he played up and down the line. As I've noted elsewhere, the Cowboys seem particularly interested in Justin Tuck clones: defensive ends who have the strength to move inside on passing downs to take advantage of mismatches against less athletic guards. Anybody who recalls Tuck toying with Cowboys backup OG Cory Proctor will look forward to being on the winning side of such mismatches, and the sooner the better.
What does our esteemed panel think of the Iron Mountaineer? Let's ask them, shall we?
Rob Rang (CBSSports.com): 10th-ranked DE; 98th overall
Strengths: Possesses a rangy, athletic build with a broad wingspan. Good initial explosion off the snap. Can cross the face of left tackles, forcing them wide and creating gaps for stunting or blitzing teammates, as well as zip inside for an impressive counter-move. Shows some core flexibility to dip under the reach of pass-blockers and flashes good hand use to rip free from their grasp. Attentive, especially in the passing game. Has learned to use his length and overall athleticism to distract quarterbacks, waving his arms and timing his leap in an attempt to tip passes at the line of scrimmage...jumped from zero to three to seven PBUs over his three seasons as a starter...Good strength to hold up surprisingly well in the running game. Anchors well, locking out would-be blockers and keeping his knees bent and butt down to create a pile. Hard worker.
Weaknesses: Too stiff to change directions fluidly so that while he is capable of rushing upfield, Clarke struggles to turn the corner and truly wreak havoc off the edge. Possesses a very rangy build and may struggle to gain weight. Reacts surprisingly well to cut-blocks, showing good recognition but his long legs leave him prone to these against quicker, more technically refined athletes he'll face in the NFL.
Compares To: Chandler Jones, New England Patriots - Jones has quickly developed into one of the league's better young pass rushers as his 11.5 sacks in 2013 can attest. Think of Clarke as a poor man's version, whose sack total will probably hover close to half of Jones' in a given year once he acclimates to the NFL. Scouts will love Clarke's length and dedication, however, two traits which have helped Jones become successful so quickly.
Gary Horton (ESPN.com): 18th-ranked DE; no overall grade
Pass Rush Skills: Average first step quickness but will have trouble consistently turning the corner with pure speed. Active hands. Adequate torso flexibility bending the edge. Flashes ability to generate speed-to-power and put tackles back on heels but still developing in lower body. Uses length well to lock out and create separation as a counter puncher. Adequate closing burst.
Versus the Run: Quick first step to establish position. Active hands and long arms to stack blockers when playing with leverage. Linear lower half and lacks an elite anchor. Will play high on occasion and will get washed by down blocks. Above-average redirect and range to finish plays.
Versatility: Best fit appears to be as a LDE for a base 43 front. Has experience and the measureables to line up as a 5-technique within a base 3-4 front if able to continue to add bulk and power in lower half.
Instincts/ Motor: Plays with an edge and not afraid to mix it up. Although he will be overwhelmed at the point of attack consistently fights and hands are always working. Consistently gives second effort on tape and chases in pursuit.
Intangibles: Team captain. Mature individual that is respected and well-liked by coaches and teammates. Leader along the defensive line. Vocal and challenges teammates. No off the field red flags that we are aware of. Son of William and Beverly Clarke.
Tony Pauline (draftinsider.net): 8th-ranked DE; 127th overall
Positive: Three-year starter awarded all-conference honors the past two years. Senior totals included a career-best 49 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, and 6 sacks. Also broke up three passes. Athletic college defensive linemen whose game is on the upswing. Solid pass rusher and plays with excellent balance. Can bend off the edge and shows the ability to change direction then pursue outside the numbers. Works his hands throughout the action, keeps his feet moving on contact, and fires off the snap with a terrific first step. Plays with good pad level, can readjust, and smooth.
Negative: Lacks bulk, outpositioned by opponents, and struggles getting off blocks once engaged at the point of attack. Shows limited strength and power.
Analysis: Clark is a tall lineman who possesses an effective combination of movement skills and athleticism. He offers possibilities as a two-gap end and should only get better as he physically matures and adds strength to his game.
Nolan Nawrocki (NFL.com): 21st-ranked DE; 229th overal
Strengths: Has a long, athletic, muscular frame. Very good movement skills for his size. Flashes the ability to penetrate or stack and shed. Gives effort in pursuit and ranges to make tackles. Solid personal and football character -- has leadership traits. Smart and coachable. Durable three-year starter.
Weaknesses: Does not play to his size -- plays too tall and does not generate power through his core. Shrivels against double teams and is too easily uprooted. Needs to play with better pop and power in his hands. Linear, vanilla rusher -- does not have a variety of moves to defeat and accelerate off blocks.
Draft Projection: Rounds 5-6
Bottom Line: Looks the part with desirable length and musculature to warrant consideration as a developmental five-technique in a one-gapping 3-4 scheme or base end in a 4-3 front, though he will have to make significant strides with his technique and improve his run defense to be more than just a guy.
Our panelists slot Clarke rather widely: between the end of the third into the sixth round. As might be expected by such a wide range of grades, they appear to disagree on some fundamental aspects of their assessment: Rang writes that Clarke shows "Good strength to hold up surprisingly well in the running game," but Pauline believes he "Shows limited strength and power." Pauline also claims that Clarke can "bend off the edge and shows the ability to change direction then pursue outside the numbers..." yet Rang opines that he's too "stiff to change directions fluidly so that...[he] struggles to turn the corner." So which is it?
I suspect that its somewhere in between. Much like Scott Crichton, who we looked at a couple of days ago, Clarke is at once athletic (particularly in terms of speed for a man their size) and a bit too stiff to be an elite edge rusher, which requires the ability to dip and bend around the corner at speed. Both remind me of current Cowboy Tyrone Crawford, a strong, fast, powerful yet athletically limited DE. All are capable of playing strongside end; at the same time, all three lack the dynamism to be Demarcus Ware-style weakside rushers, especially in the Kiffanelli system.
Our panelists slot Clarke between the late third and early sixth rounds. My first, Solomonic, instinct is to split the difference, but I think I like Clarke's game a bit better than the resulting late fourth/ early fifth round grade that such an exercise results in. And here's why: as I mentioned above, the Cowboys are trying to collect guys with position flex who can line up anywhere along the defensive line in order to exploit mismatches. While Clarke might not shine as an every-down end, moving him around will, I believe, show off his skillset. Since this is how he'd be used in Dallas, I'm going to slot him in the third round on my "little board," with the feeling that I'd still like a more obviously dynamic player (a second rounder who slips a bit, perchance?) to fall to the Cowboys at pick #78.
Later today: Now that you've seen how the national draftniks rate Clarke, stay tuned for our in-house scout, Joey Ickes, who will post a detailed, supplementary film study of the former Mountaineer to add to what you already know.
Tomorrow: UNC defensive end Kareem Martin