Keeping his eye on the ball
By Parish Howard
TJ Clark learned a long time ago not to take his eyes off the ball. It’s true in football and in life too.
Not only did it help make him one tough cornerback to shake, but it also helped earn him a scholarship to Valdosta State University.
“TJ just has all the tools,” said Warrior Head football coach J.B. Arnold. “He has a motor. He’s fast . He’s smart. He’s had great support from home. He’s really from a football family. He started as a sophomore and has just got better and better and better and better.”
Clark said he has played the game since he was 8-years-old, and spent most of that time as a running back.
“I thought that’s what I was going to be forever,” Clark said.
And he did through his first year of high school, but then, at a junior varsity seven-on-seven tournament the summer of his sophomore year his coaches got to see him play a little defense.
“The JV coaches came back telling stories of TJ playing corner and playing so physical to the point that the coaches from the other schools were complaining that TJ was being too physical,” said Warrior Defensive Coordinator David Land. “In man-coverage, TJ would get up in their face, be physical with the receivers and they thought he was being too physical. Right there we knew we had something. He was behind some people on offense. And we knew he’s too good of an athlete to be standing on the sidelines.”
Clark said it was former assistant coach Damien Postell that first suggested the move from offense to defense.
“He said I’d get recruited faster at cornerback. I guess he just saw the potential in me,” Clark said. “At first I looked at him like he was crazy, but he (Postell) played college football for Auburn and so I figured he knew what he was talking about. And he did.”
Land said once they plugged Clark into their defensive backfield, it was a perfect fit.
“He was always physical,” Land said. “The way he’d get in their faces and get his hands on the receivers. Now, I’m not talking about holding, I’m talking about doing what’s legal. Then he’d get off of blocks and come up and make the tackle. Stereotypical corners cover people but aren’t known for tackling. TJ will come up and pop you in the face. He’s going to tackle, not grab a hold of a shoelace and hope he trips him up.”
It was during his sophomore year, his first in the defensive backfield, that Clark said it really clicked with him that this was indeed his position.
“We were playing Dublin and they were ranked number three in the state,” Clark said. “They were undefeated and I made a game changing interception. It was the late third quarter. He was their main receiver and he was on the other side and I was over here. So when he ran the post I kind of sat back and picked the ball off.”
The Warriors converted that interception into a successful drive and went on to win the game.
The more he played defense, the more Clark said he came to love hitting better than getting hit.
“He had the mentality of a linebacker or an outside linebacker,” Land said. “It helped us out a lot especially against teams like Thomson, who you know are not going to throw the ball a lot. Instead of playing with two linebackers, we had TJ who would come downhill and hit just like a linebacker.”
And that physicality was one of the qualities that Valdosta State liked so much about him.
“I play corner and safety, but they like the way I play safety, the way I come up and hit,” Clark said. “They also like the way I play a receiver, I know how they use their hands so it’s easy for me to guard them.”
Clark was first team All-Region in 2013 and second team All-Area 2013. He participated in the CSRA senior bowl and the Border Bowl.
His senior year alone he had 101 tackles, 11 kickoff returns for 26 yard average, four interceptions two of which were returned for touchdowns, three tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries.
“He can play any of the defensive back positions,” Arnold said. “He started off at corner and was moved to safety and he has thrived there. I’ve had numerous coaches say that number 25 is one of the best they’ve seen. He’s tough, fast and smart. He’s probably led the team in interceptions for the last umpteen years. He’s just got all the tools. He’s capable of making big plays and he has.”
Both coaches said that if they ever wanted a receiver locked down, they put TJ on them.
“When Coach Land put me on the other team’s best receiver, so I could contain him, I kind of took that to heart,” Clark said. “He basically likes my man to man coverage, because he would have me playing man the whole game.”
Clark said he felt that having played offense for so long gave him an advantage when it came to the defensive backfield and his ability to read the plays.
Colleges started showing interest at the beginning of his junior year. Eventually had offers from about 10 schools and eventually signed with Valdosta.
“They are a winning team and are known for winning national championships,” Clark said. “I want to get me a championship ring on my finger.”
He was the first of all of his friends to join their new teams and has been conditioning in Valdosta for several weeks.
“We’re basically doing speed and conditioning drills,” Clark said. “We don’t even touch a football yet. It’s to get us in shape. It’s harder than high school. Many days I’ve wanted to quit. The biggest wake up is the conditioning. In high school it was a little run through. But in college, like on the first day I threw up. I wasn’t the only one.”
They are also lifting weights and doing some extreme stretches, he said.
“The weather is hotter down there,” he said of Valdosta. “It was 100 degrees one day. I thought I was about to fall out, but I kept on pushing. I like the coach, Bubba Walker, he’s the one that recruited me. I like how he communicates with his players. He’s not your friend. He’s like a father figure.”
Clark says he is inspired by his mother.
“Basically seeing her struggle motivated me to play football and try to make it to the NFL,” he said. “I want to take the bills off her hands and get her a house that she wants.”
All of his high school coaches have said they expect big things from Clark.
“He’ll be successful,” Land said. “He will do well wherever they put him, whether its corner or safety. And to be honest, if they are hurting on offense, I wouldn’t be surprised if they moved him over there some. He is a good enough athlete, he has good enough hands and speed that he can do whatever he needs to do. He will be very successful at the collegiate level. He’ll do well in the classroom. They don’t realize what they’ve got. They really don’t.”