Clarke a possibility for early playing time

After having the spotlight to themselves for the first few days, Alabama's 2001 signees have now faded back in the crowd a bit as the veterans returned to the field Friday. As is always the case, most of the new athletes will likely spend their first season at Alabama redshirting, taking the year to gain strength and learn the system. But a few will likely play early, and tight end Donald Clarke has a better chance than most.

Having finished junior college early and joined the team for workouts last June, Clarke isn't your average newcomer. And though those early days working under the mid-summer sun were tough, he's certain he made the right decision. "The conditioning is definitely a step up," Clarke said. "Wearing the pads is a different feel. But that's just a matter of time to get used to it. I definitely feel more comfortable now--more a part of the team.

Shown soaked in sweat after a practice this week, Clarke is a big, agile athlete capable of helping quickly at tight end.

"I'm coming in at a good time because they need some depth at tight end. I definitely expect to do some good things this year."

Clarke (spelled correctly with an ‘e') played his high school football at Spanish River in Boca Raton, Florida and then was an All-Conference pick while playing for Fort Scott Community College. As a prep senior, he was a first team All-County pick. Even before he began to work with Tide Strength Coach Ben Pollard, Clarke had been lifting weights, arriving on campus with a 340-pound bench press, which is actually a fairly good beginning point for Clarke considering his long arms.

With coaches and parents seeking to hype their respective players, most recruiting numbers are notoriously inaccurate. But Clarke is a legitimate 6-5 (maybe 6-6) with the frame to become a powerful athlete. "I think definitely size and strength would be an asset for me at tight end," he stated. "My whole career has been spent mostly as a blocking tight end, so I expect that's my future here, too."

After making All-Conference his first season of junior-college ball, Clarke redshirted the second year, meaning he has three years left to play for the Tide. Clarke considered several schools, but chose Alabama over Oregon State, Mississippi State, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado. Having done his homework, Clarke knew that Alabama would be in need of tight end help soon. And he also was impressed with Coach Franchione and.

Mark Tommerdahl, Alabama's Special Teams Coordinator and Tight Ends Coach, has also impressed Clarke. "Coach Tommerdahl is a great guy--a great guy," Clarke said. "He knows his stuff. I try and listen to whatever he says and do whatever he says."

With the rest of the newcomers, Clarke spent the first few days working on fundamentals and getting acclimated to college football. "(The coaches) have been concentrating on our footwork," he related. "They want to make sure we take choppy steps. We drill a lot on keeping our steps small, come off the ball hard. Make sure you roll your hips--a lot of clinical things to start us off right. But it's going pretty good."

In full stride, Clarke looks back for the pass. Right at 6-6 and 250 pounds, he presents a decidedly uninviting target to prospective tacklers in the secondary.

For the first two days Clarke and true freshman Clint Johnston were the only two tight ends on campus, but now they've been joined by starter Terry Jones Jr., Theo Sanders, David Cavan and Jeremy Drummond--heightening the competition level tremendously. "I've dropped down to the bottom of the totem pole," Clarke said. "That can make you feel bad, but you can't give in. That just means you've got to fight that much harder to get back to the top."

One thing Clarke has enjoyed is how the tight end figures into Coach Franchione's offense. "I don't know; I think they were short a little bit on their receivers, before the veterans got here," he explained with a laugh. "But I've been catching some passes. Before, I've mostly been used as a blocker, but I've got good hands. I can do whatever they need me to do. I can catch the ball. That shows the other side of my game. I like to showcase my receiving."

And in common with Tide starter Terry Jones, Jr., Clarke is a load to bring down. "I'm right at 250 pounds right now," he said. "And I guess that can be a bit intimidating to those DBs trying to tackle me. I'm trying."

With continued good performances Clarke has a legitimate chance to figure into Alabama's plans this year as a blocking tight end. But for now he's trying to concentrate on getting smarter. "Right now the biggest challenge is to just learn everything," Clarke said. "We're in meetings all day. At first we were taking in a lot--and it was only freshman camp. The challenge is to learn everything to do, and then bring it back out on the field."


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