Mike Casazza: Clarke causes mismatch problems
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Will Clarke has played football long enough, has been at West Virginia long enough, to have witnessed offensive coaches on his sideline and the one across the field do everything they can to create and exploit mismatches.
For as long as he's been here, through two coaching staffs and very different ways to play offense and defense, that tactic has been limited to the offense. That linebacker can't cover this slot receiver. This tight end is too big for that safety. There's no way the cornerback can track the running back on the wheel route.
Well, what about that stationary offensive tackle? What's he supposed to do with the 6-foot-7, 275-pound Clarke coming alone off the edge?
These are the sorts of questions the Mountaineers are asking in a season that's already seen them take sizeable strides from where they were a year ago.
"I've always tried to do that my whole career," said defensive line coach Erik Slaughter. "We look at protections. Who's their worst lineman? How can I get my best pass rush guy on him? And Will's made the effort to be explosive. He's hungry, he's determined and it's paying off for him."
Slaughter and the Mountaineers (2-2, 0-1 Big 12) will need that Saturday at Mountaineer Field. WVU plays host to No. 11 Oklahoma State at noon on ESPN and the Cowboys (3-0) have the best offensive line in the Big 12. They've allowed two sacks this season and 12, 12, 10, 10, 15 and 11 the last six years.
Yet the Mountaineers couldn't do this a year ago. They didn't have the number of players they have now. They didn't have the faith in the players they do now.
The defensive line was ordinary, limited by playing a nose guard at defensive end and by having its ends line up right across from offensive tackles. There was no variation.
WVU now has depth and diversity. The ends still line up across from the tackles and the nose will still cover the center, but not nearly as often. They can each step inside or outside and use the leverage there.
The Mountaineers will sometimes use their Buck linebacker as a fourth lineman standing up on one end of the line. Brandon Golson, the junior college transfer, is figuring that out quickly and has two sacks.
Eric Kinsey was trained as a defensive end, and will still play on the end and in the middle of the line from time to time, but he's found ways around the corner. Marvin Gross is trying to find his way, but the freshman has time on his side.
They get sizable assistance, too. From time to time WVU will have a defensive end standing up on the other end of the line. That end is usually Clarke, which can be a frightening prospect for a tackle.
"It's kind of like you're on an island and you can do what you please," Clarke said. "If I see an offensive lineman who's maybe a lot heavier than I am, maybe he's slower or maybe he's more of a power guy than a speed guy, I'll try to use that to my advantage."
"A guy who may be just as fast and isn't much of a power guy, I'll try to use that to my advantage. It all comes with film study."
An offense can't double-team Clarke outside. When he's lined up in more traditional spots, a guard can help a tackle and the center can help a guard. When Clarke is wide and isolated against a tackle, either standing up or with his hand on the ground, may the best man win.
"There aren't too many guys like Will Clarke running around," Slaughter said. "We've got to make sure we get everything out of him while he's here."
Clarke was constantly active against Oklahoma and gave the Sooners problems. He has three sacks in the past two games, including two in Saturday's loss against Maryland. Coach Dana Holgorsen said it was the best Clarke had ever played.
He did much of his damage in the package the Mountaineers have to put him in place to start outside and get inside the pocket, but he was effective in more ordinary situations, too.
"I'm trying to back off and turn him loose a little bit and let his technique take over, but he's chosen to make plays and he's chosen to be more physical," Slaughter said. "I think he's more aware of the opportunity to make plays. It helps him to get him on the corner, but we've got the ability to line him up in multiple places and get him matched up against whoever we want to."
That's the difference with the defensive line, and possibly even the entire defense, this season. It's not that Clarke can move around and present problems in different spots. It's that he knows it and is ready to apply it in his fifth and finaal year with the Mountaineers
Clarke has always been tall with a broad reach. He'd added pounds and muscle through the years. Yet he already has a career-high sack total and the three through four games is twice the amount he had last season and half a sack better than what he had in 2011. An ankle injury bothered him throughout his freshman season and only let him play four games.
Slaughter knew he needed more and knew he could get more. He watched Clarke on film, going back to those games and those moments Slaughter knew he could use to prove a point. He packaged plays in a video that showed Clarke not finishing or not joining plays.
Slaughter would have a hard time doing that now.
"I notice I'm playing harder than I was last year," Clarke said. "A lot of times when a coach tells you you're not playing hard, you think you're playing as hard as you can. But watching film this year compared to last year, I'm not playing the hardest I've ever played because I can still play harder, but I can tell how much more effort I'm giving. That's definitely helping me out."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.