Bama's newest offensive weapon?

Heading into this season, Donald Clarke's niche on the team was pretty much set. Line up at strongside tight end on running downs. Work as the extra blocker when the team went to a two tight end set. Basically, block and then block some more. <br><br>But things are changing.

When Bama's starting tight end had trouble holding onto the football, Clarke came off the bench to make an impressive 22-yard catch and run versus Oklahoma. But that play alone hardly prepared anyone for last Saturday. Facing a tough, North Texas defense, Clarke hauled in three passes for 80 total yards to lead the Tide in receiving.

"It was a lot of fun, actually," Clarke admitted with a laugh, following the game. "It was different. I guess I'm used to blocking, but it was nice to catch the ball for a change.

Always noted as an effective blocker, Clarke led Bama in receiving last weekend versus North Texas.

As Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione explained, the tight end's sudden "appearance" in the Bama offense was more a matter of defensive reaction than offensive game planning. "Those are the same plays we've run for the past year," Franchione noted. "Some days (the defense) covers (the tight end) and we can't get him the ball, but the last two weeks we've been able to do that."

With defensive backs concentrating on the wideouts and linebackers worried about the run, Clarke has been able to run free. Franchione explained, "The defense has covered other parts of our offense, which has given us the opportunity to throw to the tight end. Tyler Watts made the correct read, and we've taken advantage of it."

"It was unexpected," Clarke acknowledged laughing, "but I was prepared for it. We had a good week of practice. I just tried to make the best of my opportunity. It was a lot of fun."

An all-conference pick while playing one season for Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College, Clarke arrived in Tuscaloosa with a reputation as a effective blocker but with inconsistent hands. He spent his first season at Alabama as a little-used back-up, playing behind Terry Jones, Jr.

So right now Clarke is frankly enjoying the added duties. "Sure, it's a lot more fun to catch balls than it is to block," he said. "Every tight end and receiver wants to catch a pass. That's like a dream. When you get it, you're fortunate. You're happy, and you make the best of the chance."

In the past two games Clarke has accumulated more than 100 yards receiving--a season's worth of production for most blocking tight ends. But he agreed with his head coach that the Tide is just taking what the defense has been given. "Like I said earlier, I was fortunate to be open. I took advantage of the opportunity when I got it."

Though he has always had the athleticism to be an effective receiver, Clarke has had to work on his hands to become a weapon at wideout.

So is he now officially a weapon in the Bama offensive arsenal? "I don't even know, to tell you the truth," he replied with a laugh. "I just go out there and do what I've got to do. We prepared for this all week long. It was fortunate that it happened, and I was ready for it."

"Donald has come in the last two weeks and played well for us," Franchione said. "He made catches and made plays for us."

For a 6-6, 260-pound athlete, Clarke has always run well. But he's also been working hard to improve his receiving skills. "I think it's working with the JUGGS machine after practice," Clarke explained. "I've been out there with Theo (Sanders) working hard, catching extra balls.

"(Catching the ball) should be second nature, because we practice it all week. So it should be natural. For me it was different, because I'm not used to being used as a pass receiver. But it should be second nature, and you should respond when it comes your way."

Of course that's why Clarke's recent performance took so many by surprise. With his catch versus the Sooners and on all three receptions last Saturday, the big tight end smoothly caught the pass in full stride and turned up field, rumbling through the opposition's secondary, looking for smaller defensive backs to punish.

"I was actually surprised that I have been that open," Clarke acknowledged. "I'm not a shifty runner. I'm not one to make a move or whatever. I'm just going to lower my head and go. I'm going to try and punish those DBs at the end. That's my goal.

"Like I said, I'm not shifty, but I will hit you."

Clarke began the season listed second at tight end, but this past week the depth chart changed. "We switched up the order on Tuesday," he related. "We switched the rotation up, and I've been working with the first team since then. I stayed with the first team all last week."

When David Cavan struggled catching the football, Clarke took over as the starter at strongside tight end.

But the normal nervousness before a first-game start had no negative effect on his play. "I had some pre-game jitters," he admitted. "This was my first Division 1 start, so it was different. But after that first play you get used to everything. It's just like another game. It's just a matter of working hard. Get your mind right. Focus, and get ready to go."

Clarke's production last Saturday was impressive, but in terms of total yardage he actually wound up only fourth on his team. Tyler Watts (161 yards passing and another 64 running), Shaud Williams (93 yards rushing, 17 receiving and 46 on returns) and Ray Hudson (82 yards rushing and 14 returning kicks) all came in ahead of him on the total yardage chart.

"I think it makes it hard to prepare for us," Clarke said of Bama's versatile offense. "When the tight ends are being used effectively, you don't know where we're going. We have so many different options. I think we did a good job of utilizing (our weapons) Saturday. Shaud (Williams), AG (Ahmaad Galloway), Santonio (Beard)--everybody played well. So it's kind of hard for the defense to defend everything."

Of course the real question is will Bama fans see this much production from the tight end every week?

"I hope so," Clarke said. "I'm going to give it my best shot."


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