Filling A Need

Last fall, Mountaineer coaches and fans were desperate to find the missing piece to the WVU offense puzzle. The loss of rambunctious Owen Schmitt at the fullback position left WVU lacking in terms of lead blocking and short yardage running, and that probably cost the gold and blue a couple of games.

Finding a suitable replacement at the position thus became a point of emphasis in both recruiting and offseason development.

One of the players vying to make that position his own is redshirt freshman Ryan Clarke, whose size and build stand out as natural fits for the position. The six-footer, who now weighs in at 243 pounds, is still a few ticks short of his target in the high 230s, but has made great progress in reshaping his body. When Clarke came to Morgantown just one year ago, he was almost 30 pounds heavier. He credits his weight loss to strength and conditioning director Mike Joseph.

"I like (the workouts) a lot," admitted Clarke. "He's a lot harder on us and works us a lot longer. It's just overall a good program."

Although Clarke's weight loss has had an obvious impact on his speed, he still sees room for improvement and says that is one of his main focuses for summer workouts. While many players feel as though summer workouts are a much more relaxed time than during the academic year, Clarke has not gotten a break since the end of spring semester at WVU.

"[I'm taking] four classes," said Clarke. "[Summer workouts] are a lot of work but it's worth it in the end. [Summer classes and workouts] have been pretty much the same as the fall."

Clarke will need to continue to balance both football and school work as he competes against sophomore Ricky Kovatch and junior Will Johnson for the starting position at fullback – not to mention some talented freshmen who will be on campus next month.

"Competition makes everyone work a lot harder," admitted Clarke. "We're trying to beat each other out. I like to hit. Johnson likes to catch and Kovatch is a combination of the two. We all have our own special abilities that we bring."

Despite the competition, Clarke emphasizes that he and the other two fullback candidates keep it friendly.

"We're like brothers, all of us," said Clarke. "We're cool. We just want each other to get better. Everyday when we work out, we're just pushing each other."

If seeing time at fullback is not in Clarke's future, he revealed that he could see time at another spot on the field.

"We are going to rotate a lot and we are going to have to work out playing tight end and fullback at the same time," he said.

If Clarke's improved conditioning leads to more consistent play on the field, West Virginia could be more versatile in its offensive attack in 2009 – a stated goal of head coach Bill Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. With an increased role for the passing game, the pressure might be off Clarke and the other fullback candidates to match the production of Schmitt, but if they can come through in the situations that stymied the Mountaineer offense a year ago, the backfield combination of 16, 7 and 43 might end up being compared favorably to that of 5, 10 and 35.

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