Where There's A Will Clarke There's A Way

Second-year Bengal Will Clarke is pushing his way into the mix on the defensive line with brains, brawn and will power. This should come as no surprise to those familiar with the mountainous former Mountaineer.

The Bengals drafted defensive end Will Clarke with a plan.

They took the former West Virginia standout as a prospect in the third round of last year's NFL Draft with the hope that he would fulfill his potential as a long and strong, productive edge rusher in the mold of Bengals teammates Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap.

The Bengals asked Clarke to add weight - a lot of weight, more than 20 pounds - while staying fit and getting stronger.

They asked him to get better at learning and retaining football technique.

They asked him to be as ready as possible for offseason workouts so that he could begin competing for a spot in the defensive line rotation.

To this point, Clarke has put a check next to every box on the list, pleasing the list-makers with his resoluteness. Bengals coaches love his strength of character, single-minded purposefulness and intentness. On the field? Not so much, so far. He got into seven games as a rookie, making three tackles and recovering a fumble. But the potential is still there along with the firmness of purpose.

"The way he’s been practicing? No question," defensive line coach Jay Hayes said. "He understands where he’s supposed to be in the defense, and he’s bigger and stronger. You can see that confidence."

Hayes was speaking to the team's official web site, which speculated that Clarke, 24, has elbowed his way into the mix along the defensive front. Considering Clarke's ability to advance with an unflinching determination, who's counting him out?

"Hayes knows a big key to getting the defense back into the top 10 like 2011-2013 is a seven, eight-man rotation up front," wrote Bengals in-house reporter Geoff Hobson. "Last year, they felt like they could play just five with the departure of Johnson and Clarke’s developmental path after they took him in the third round out of West Virginia."

With defensive tackle Geno Atkins struggling at the same time in the wake of his recovery from knee surgery, the line didn't have the strength nor the stamina to be effective for four quarters. That shouldn't be the case this season because defensive coordinator Paul Guenther likes his depth.

"We have guys that have played at some point, and not just on the defensive line,” the coach said. “You look at cornerbacks and linebackers, and with the depth we have, you can sleep easier on Saturday nights knowing you’re not one injury away from playing with guys that haven’t played here.”

Injuries are part of life in the NFL, but the Bengals seem particularly snakebit. They have learned lessons, really, from season one under Marvin Lewis, who can't seem to get a break with a fully healthy starting squad.

"But with Johnson back and Wallace Gilberry now able to play both end and tackle, that gives Hayes five (on the line), plus tackle Brandon Thompson, for six," Hobson wrote. "And if Clarke plays like he had practiced this spring, Hayes says he has found his seventh."

Hobson wrote that Guenther was impressed right away when the 6-foot-6 Clarke showed up this year at 290 pounds after "they told him he had to put on 20 pounds this past offseason after he arrived somewhere between 270-275."

It's made a difference.

“He looks like a different player,” Guenther said. “I have confidence in these guys that we’re able to go in there and play at a high level. I really, really think we can have one of the best (lines) in the league.”

In Clarke, the Bengals know that they have a hard worker. He's the only player in West Virginia history to win three “Iron Mountaineer” awards for excellence in the weight room. He was successful both at end and at defensive tackle during his West Virginia career.

Clarke's 2014 NFL Scouting Combine weight was 271. The 88th pick in last year's draft, Clarke played just 69 snaps as a rookie and has a questionable long-term outlook with so many capable linemen set to squeeze into the 2015 Bengals rotation.

He allowed the Bengals to tap into his work ethic in the weight room and his smarts off the field in an effort to build a bigger and better version of himself for this season.

He played defensive tackle as a senior at WVU, starting 12 games and finishing third in the Big 12 with 17 tackles for loss and tying for sixth with six sacks. He earned second-team All-Big 12 honors. He made 22 prior starts at end his sophomore and junior seasons, earning Big 12 honorable mention honors at end as a junior. Clarke had 9.5 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss in his college career.

Also at West Virgina, Clarke was named to the school's Garrett Ford Academic Honor Roll and to the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll. A study in brains and brawn, Clarke is a manchild with loads of potential. He has all the intangibles football coaches seek. The hope is that he develops the football skills to match.

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