Sometimes in life you think you know something, but you second guess yourself. If that happens to you or me it’s no big deal. You just move on with whatever you decide to do. For a football player, especially an inside linebacker, hesitation is death. You can’t play the position if you can’t decide what the right play to make is. Do I shoot the gap or wait to see what transpires? Do I take the crossing route or stay in my zone?
Damone Clark had tendencies of indecisions which hurt his ability to play linebacker. It’s not like he isn’t smart enough, Demone was a 4.0 high school student at Baton Rouge’s Southern Lab High School. In fact a high school coach once said referring to Demone, “The uncertainties of not knowing are the Achilles heel for him.”
It wasn’t the fact he didn’t know what to do. He was just afraid to make a mistake. In football a split second decisions can become highly magnified in front of 102,321 people (which is the capacity of Tiger Stadium). Demone had “paralysis by analysis.”
Demone Clark is a tough kid with a strong family behind him. Still he had to endure more than most during his life so far. When he was five his family became refugees of Hurricane Katrina. They lost everything they had and moved to Baton Rouge to start again. Then eleven years later when Damone was in high school the family again lost everything during the floods of 2016. Undeterred, his family started from scratch again. During his high school years he was standout linebacker on two state title teams.
Clark played in 12 games as a true freshman at LSU playing mostly on special teams. That year Butkus Award winning Devin White took Demone under his wing and mentored him. White was the big man on campus. Everybody knew and admired Devin White. Nobody even knew who Damone Clark was at that time. White insisted that Clark was the only one to work out with him in the weight room or while doing drills on the field. Demone would wonder aloud, “Why is he doing this?”
The reason was White saw the enormous potential in Clark. White was a self-described “childish freshman” when he arrived at LSU. He remembered when Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley did the same for him. He was paying it forward with Clark. “A lot of guys on the team, they told me I was a leader before I was even a leader, but I never understood what they meant Devin, Patrick Queen and Jacob (Phillips), they used to be on me a lot, and I never understood why. But just looking back now, I understand. They saw something in me I didn’t see in myself,” Clark said
As a sophomore Clark played in all 15 games starting in 3 as an outside linebacker. As a junior he took over the starting job from Patrick Queen just like when Queen took over for Devin White. Clark that year was given one of the highest honors a player at LSU can have as he was offered the #18 jersey as a junior.
The No. 18 at LSU means more than just a number. It’s given to the player who displays a selfless attitude and epitomizes what being an LSU football player means. It’s a tradition began with quarterback Matt Mauck, who led LSU to a national championship in 2003.
Demone was becoming the starter in 2020 which was good, but he had to do so under a new defensive system. Former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda had moved on to become the head coach at Baylor University. He was replaced by Bo Pelini who turned out to be a dreadful hire. In his first game as defensive coordinator the Tigers gave up a league (SEC) record 623 passing yards which is 79 more yards than the previous record.
In what was supposed to be his breakout year Clark struggled horribly in the Pelini system. The coaching style of Pelini didn’t help either. He would rant about all the things his defense couldn’t do and not what they could do. Clark’s father Damon said, “I don’t know what happened, I really don’t know. But it was bad when Pelini was there. You could see their attitudes. They were fussing on the side. It was bad.”
Constantly being berated by their coach left the defense in a shambles. LSU in 2020 had the worst defense in the SEC and the worst defense in LSU history. It was especially bad for Clark. Coaches has lost faith in him. The fans had soured on Clark, and the team even brought in two transferred linebackers in Mike Jones Jr. and Navonteque Strong with the idea they would be the starting inside linebackers in 2021. Then Bo Pelini was let go after a single season.
Enter Daronte Jones as the new defensive coordinator and Blake Baker, the former defensive coordinator at Miami, as linebackers coach. Jones, who coached with former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda for one season at Wisconsin in 2015, had spent the previous five years in the NFL, most recently as the defensive backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings. His other NFL stops came with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Miami Dolphins.
Blake Baker looked at game film and immediately saw the amazing physical gifts Clark had. His problems were as Baker stated, “I don’t think it was him not being able to process. He was afraid to make mistakes.” Baker focused on correcting errors not about criticism. He was looking for growth. Baker was a players; coach. He worked with them and ran the stairs with them. He even wore cleats. A chuckling Clark stated, “I’ve never seen a coach wear cleats.”
When Baker arrived at LSU there was an assumption that Clark would never start another game. With Baker’s help Clark began to regain the trust of his school. The coaches knew the talent they had. One assistant said, “He’s just scratching the surface, I don’t know if he knew, or even still knows, how freakishly athletic he is.” Clark is a 6’ 3” 245 lbs well muscled player with great length. He squats 575 lbs and should run the 40 in 4.45 to 4.50 seconds.
After the season opener against UCLA where Clark made 14 tackles but still didn’t play up to his potential, Baker continued to work with the talented Clark. In the 4th game of the year Clark’s play was beginning to be at par with his physical abilities. He had 15 tackles at Mississippi State helping the Tigers to a huge win.
In a game where the Tigers defensive line was totally dominated against Kentucky, Clark again played well having 14 tackles including this TFL on a passing play.
Clark came from the inside incredibly fast because he saw this same action during film study. The back had no chance on the play because Clark was already hitting him as he was turning his head to look upfield. This was the 6th game of the year, and Clark was reacting a lot more rather than thinking. He was starting to work the old linebacker mantra, “see, read, react.”
These next few plays from the Auburn game show some of the physical and mental acumen that Clark has. He was showing not only those great athletic abilities but also the little nuances in technique that can be so important.
When the tight end goes in motion, he switches the strength of the formation. Once the tight end puts his hand in the dirt, he has now outflanked the defensive end so LSU has no contain to the edge of the formation. Clark rectifies this by moving to the outside shoulder of the tight end. The offense is in a pistol formation so at the snap Clark reacts by stepping up when the RB takes a bicycle step back (like he is going to take the ball).
Clark comes up going from right to left to maintain contain on the play. This is the correct technique for the outside contain man on the play. He doesn’t want the tight end to make his way to his right so Clark comes “outside in” stacking and shedding the tight end. Clark has great length with impressive strength so he easily sheds the tight end then grabs the back for a TFL.
This next play against Auburn has Clark picking up the tight end who is off line as a detached receiver. When the new defensive staff came in they wanted Clark to react using his impressive physical tools. This is one of the tenants that coach Baker preached to Clark. He wanted Clark to make plays, cause havoc, pressure the opposing offense.
Watch how easily Clark is able to stay with the tight end even though he is moving sideways. That is a huge man moving effortlessly. Whereas many players his size struggle, Clark is very fluid in space. By leaving his man (who eventually runs himself out of bounds) he insures that the QB won’t turn the corner, making a first down. Forcing the offense to make a difficult play in limited time works here.
This next play is a 3rd and 5 play again out of the pistol formation. This is a fake run with the RB crossing the formation. That is Clark’s man in coverage, but he also doesn’t want to leave his position then allowing the QB (if he is given an open lane) a free shot for an easy first down by running. The QB here (Nix) has been running around making absurd plays all game on some highlight reel (OMG that was lucky) plays.
Once Clark sees the pass he is off like a shot. This is an incredibly quick, agile RB in the open field. Watch as Clark races outside with his impressive speed then breaks down to a crawl using a wide base while moving to his right. This is how it is done, a sure, powerful tackle as he engulfs the RB, forcibly taking him to the ground. A lot of players will just run a full speed towards the ball carrier hoping to make a SportsCenter highlight play with the possibility of just whiffing on the tackle.
This tackle brings up 4th down. It was an aggressive, powerful tackle which sends a message to the opponent that you are going to be in for a tough night when you venture into the 2nd level of the defense. That type of intimidation definitely works as some players will be looking for the next hit instead of looking the ball into their hands for an incompletion. The most physical defenses cause the most unforced errors because of this.
This is not to say that Clark is a can’t miss prospect. He most certainly is not. He is a player in need of development so Mike Rutenberg (Jets linebackers coach) will need to work with Clark. It’s not so much technique as doing the right technique every time. You just saw Clark use near perfect technique in tackling the RB in the flat. Then there is this:
This is a horrible play by Clark. He runs from the other side of the formation, flowing through traffic. Then he arrives with speed and gives a half hearted attempt at the tackle. He should have opened up that great wingspan of his and unloaded on the QB If he had done so he would have not only stopped him 2 yards short of the goal line but also driven him into the ground with power. This is not an isolated problem. It’s not super prevalent, but I’ve seen it enough to worry it’s a habit that could turn into a problem.
This next play may not look like it but it’s a planned QB run. Some receivers run their men off while other start blocking within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. It didn’t help that the left side defensive end just runs himself by the QB while losing his balance.
Clark is on the right side of the defense. The play is run to the left side of the defense. That was done with a purpose. That purpose was to keep Clark as far from the run as possible. Once Clark knows what he wants to do, he can get there in a hurry. He has strong hands with great length. You can see how he just grabs the QB then yanks him out of bounds. Also once he grabs the QB he twists his body, using his momentum to make sure the QB doesn’t get any extra yards on the play.
I have stated that Clark has great speed especially for his size. Here he runs down a RB from way back using that speed.
There is not a whole lot here, just some great physical ability by a top level prospect using those tools to make a play. Clark begins the play as the middle linebacker so he maintains his position then follows the QB and the receiver who is feigning the reverse. By the time he realizes the play is to the other side, he is well behind the play. Only his great speed and desire get him to make the tackle.
This next play is a staple of every inside linebacker who plays in the NFL. This is an off tackle run with some powerful blocking This is against Texas A&M who have some massive offensive line players who could block a garbage truck.
So on this play Clark has to read the action of the play. He stacks and sheds the blocker which he does quickly with his great length. He then is able to run down the back, grab him, and pull him to the ground. This RB is larger than many at 6’ 0” 200 lbs. Yet Clark yanks him down for a three yard gain. After LSU got totally manhandled by the Kentucky offensive line earlier in the year, this game against a highly rated and huge Texas A&M offensive line showed the growth of the defense and especially Damone Clark.
This next play shows unique athleticism, speed and determination. Ole Miss was just killing the secondary of LSU all day. At this point in the game, with less than 6 minutes left in the game the Tigers are down by 21 points but Clark is still competing like it’s the first snap.
This is an occasion where Clark cannot wrap up the offensive player. This is a play that is designed to go inside off tackle, but that is clogged up so the back rolls outside with open space. Clark is inside and has to fight off a huge guard. His great length helps to keep him from being swallowed up. Clark disengages then races to the outside to cut off the play.
He can’t just race to the edge because he has no idea if any defensive players are behind him so if he races to the sideline the back could just cut back inside for an easy score. So he measures his assault, looking to hammer his opponent out of bounds shy of the goal line. This play was somehow ruled a touchdown even though the back never got within a yard of the goal line. Upon further review it was determined that the ball was dislodged prior to crossing the goal line then bounced into the end zone only to roll out of bounds. This was ruled a touchback with LSU taking the ball at the 20. Clark had put his shoulder pad directly on the ball which made it come loose.
This last clip is of Clark defying his responsibilities to make a play. He made a judgment call. He ignored his responsibility and attacked. It made Coach Baker so happy to see, he wanted Clark to make quick reads then react without thinking which is what he did.
It gave the ball back to LSU on the 4th down stop in a game they eventually lost in overtime because the offense wasn’t productive. It doesn’t deter from the growth that Clark had as a senior. He went from a player being thought of as an afterthought going into his senior year to a Butkus Award finalist. His 135 tackles in 12 games plus 15 TFL and 6 sacks showed the world his talents.
He didn’t forget those who helped him become who he was. He was talking about Coach Baker when he tweeted, “Blessed that God allowed us to cross paths and build a relationship that will last forever. Believed in me when others counted me out and helped me get where I am today. To the coolest and realest coach I simply say, ‘THANK YOU.’”
“Coach Baker got the best out of me,” he said.
Sadly for his effort coach Baker was let go when the new head coach Brian Kelly took control. Also let go was strength coach Tommy Moffitt who had been at LSU for the last 21 years as the strength coach and assistant athletic director. Before he was let go Tommy Moffitt tweeted about Damone Clark, “We have not had a linebacker with all of his tools to play at this university.” This is a coach who worked with Devin White.
Clark is a tough kid who understands the rigors of playing his position. He works incredibly hard in classroom work as well as film study. He credits his intense attitude to his daughter who is now only two years old. Like many of us with children he realized, “My daughter just helped me grow up. I have a mouth I have to provide for. If I don’t do it, who will?”
Truth is that when LSU leadership was nowhere to be found it was Clark who was the one player maintaining order. He is not afraid to challenge a teammate to work harder or a star player from another team who may disrespects his team. This stuff hypes up his teammates.
Clark ended the year with freshman Greg Penn as his protege just like how Devin White did for him as a freshman; paying it forward.
“It’s easy to be a leader when things are easy, when things are going tough, that’s when you see who the true leaders are.” Clark said. It’s easy to see why many of his teammates called him “The Leader” or “The General”.
The LSU defense had to switch to a 4-3 defense because of injury, not because they wanted to Yet when the defense started to work together they held Alabama to 6 total yards rushing and 20 points.It held Arkansas to 16 points even though the offense was struggling.
I believe that Demone Clark is an underrated talent who could be a star in the NFL with the right coaching. Robert Saleh has had some great linebackers. They are the backbone of his defense. Clark has some of the best physical tools to work with plus he has the right attitude and work ethic to succeed.
Mel Kiper has recently come out and said Clark is a border line first round talent. While I rarely agree with the talking head, he is correct in his assessment. It might take a year or two to see the ability on the field, but Clark has All-Pro type physical skills. He has what many teams need including the Jets.
The Jets are in need of more than one linebacker. In fact there are a number of great prospects in this Draft at the linebacker position. If the Jets could trade down plus maybe trade C.J. Mosley (they may have to assume in cap space) it could open the door for a few Draft picks. I realize you can’t start 3 rookies at linebacker, but you could work in some rookies as the year progresses with the veterans.
I know with Robert Saleh as coach he would love to have three outstanding linebackers behind his defensive line. I have some ideas to make this a possibility, but that is for another time. As it is I think Demone Clark could be a difference maker at the linebacker position for the retooling Jets.
That’s what I think.
What do you think?