WVU football: Clay, Arlia fill critical positions
MORGANTOWN - Ryan Clarke is the kind of guy who has been afforded a certain status during his time at West Virginia University.
Teammates know about his approach and coaches have grown to trust him, so much so that when they needed someone to carry the ball in a pinch at Texas Tech, they gave it twice to Clarke.
Those are the only two backfield carries that haven't gone to a running back or Tavon Austin this season.
Clarke is a redshirt senior who has worked through hard times and earned a distinction among his peers. He's a fullback who is tough enough that you don't mess with him when he does what he has done to Cody Clay.
Clarke has taken liking to Clay, the redshirt sophomore from George Washington High who came to campus as a tight end, who was asked to learn center and on Saturday played fullback, tight end and inside receiver against Oklahoma State
Impressed, Clarke has given Clay a nickname, one not fit for print because it draws upon the World's Oldest Profession, but one that generally surmises what Clay has grown to mean to the coaches.
"Basically," Clay said, "what he's saying is that I'll do whatever they tell me to do."
Connor Arlia has been merely waiting for such an opportunity, but he, too, got it against the Cowboys. In the same week that fellow receivers Travares Copeland and Ivan McCartney deserted the team, Clay played all over the place, Ryan Nehlen stretched the field and caught a touchdown and Arlia sold out to make a reception the offense hadn't seen in far too long.
Yet Coach Dana Holgorsen was more interested in what happened when the game was over
"Those were three of the most disappointed kids in our locker room after the game," he said. "We need more of that to exist."
The theme of the week, as Holgorsen tries to find the latest motivations to end a four-game losing streak and beat No. 12 Oklahoma (7-2, 5-1 Big 12) in Saturday's 7 p.m. game at Mountaineer Field (WVAH telecast), is identifying those who care the most.
It's a fun and heartwarming tale for Clay, the first player from a Charleston high school to sign with the Mountaineers since 1997. Nehlen, former coach Don Henlen's grandson, and Arlia, a walk-on who would have played in January's Orange Bowl, but was seriously injured in a Jet Ski accident days before the game.
But there's a football component here that cannot be obscured by the sentiment. Each can play and Clay and Arlia, in particular, address a problem WVU has had all season. Never mind the fact Holgorsen and his coaches have questioned the desire of many players. The Mountaineers haven't had inside receivers to completely complement the offense.
They miss the Tyler Urban tight end type. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Clay most closely resembles that and seems better suited to handle it than 6-4 redshirt freshman Dante Campbell, who has dropped off the radar after catching a touchdown pass against James Madison and then starting against Texas Tech.
WVU also misses the Devon Brown and Willie Milhouse types, short, but stout receivers who could take hits to run routes or hold onto passes, but also block defenders. Arlia is more in line with that than freshman Jordan Thompson, who gets bounced around a bit because he's 5-7 and 165 pounds, which is two inches and 20 pounds smaller than Arlia.
Thompson lost his starting job and couldn't get it back from Travares Copeland, who no matter how big he was, wasn't big enough to hang around when times got tough.
"It's definitely something the coaches preach," Arlia said. "They want you to block hard every play and run your routes as hard as you can. I'm not the biggest or fastest guy. I know that, so I know I've got to go as hard as I can. That's all I try to do out there."
That position flashes with a player like Tavon Austin, but the offense flourishes with a physical presence who can block any kind of defender on running and passing plays. Austin and Thompson are the former. Clay and Arlia can be the latter, mostly because they want to.
"Having Cody at that spot last week did us some good," Holgorsen said, reminding everyone that Clay had been a fullback most of the season. "He sprung Tavon for a touchdown and he blocked well on the perimeter. He probably blocked better on the perimeter than he did in the backfield.
"Connor brings some toughness like that to the inside. He will get in there and give it everything that he's got. He'll get in there and stick his hat on somebody and fight for everything that he is worth. That type of guy is important."
This isn't a gimmick or some storyline that comes out of non-conference blowouts. This is reality now. The coaches are running out of patience with players who, more or less, don't want it as badly as others. Too much time is spent shaping game plans, practicing plays or focusing on fundamentals to worry about whether a kid wants to play football.
"Those guys that we are focused on now, they want to play hard, they want to be out there," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "Those are the guys we want to coach."
The worry removed, WVU now moves forward. Arlia had never played as much as he did Saturday and never had a chance like he did on the game's third play. He was open deep down the middle, but the pass was off and he couldn't adjust.
He went to the sideline as the Mountaineers punted, but was a part of the plan the rest of the way. His diving 12-yard reception on third-and-11 in the third quarter extended a field-goal drive.
"Coaches preach to play the next play, don't worry about the previous play," Arlia sad. "Every ball I think I can get to and I think I probably could have gotten to that first one. I wish I would have, but I kept my head in the game and kept playing."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.