Minium: Nick Clarke, the lineman nobody wanted, has been a standout center for ODU, starting 43 consecutive games
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
Nick Clarke was a bull of an offensive lineman at Atlee High School, located just outside of Richmond. A two-time All-Metro pick, he was smart and had an edge to his game. He loved nothing more than burying a defensive tackle onto the turf.
He also looked the part of a tough guy. He was big and had blondish hair down to his shoulders. When he put on his game face, it was intimidating.
So why did no colleges seem to want Clark?
For a while, Campbell was the only school to offer a scholarship, but even the Camels withdrew the offer when someone else committed to them.
“The summer before my senior year, all I did was go to college camps,” Clarke said. “I’d go to a camp and then hear nothing.
“When I came to camp at ODU, a week or so after camp, I got a call and said they were going in a different direction.”
Nick Clarke with parents Kevin and Cheryl and siblings Colby and Savannah.
But Clarke had two big boosters behind him at Old Dominion University: the late Bill Dee, then ODU’s offensive line coach, and Kyle Jolly, then a graduate assistant O-line coach and now the offensive line coach at Concord College in West Virginia.
“No one else over here on the coaching staff wanted me,” he said. “I guess they thought I was too short. And for an FBS lineman, maybe I am. But coach Dee and Kyle made it clear they wanted me.”
Dee, for those of you who knew him, could be persistent and at times, well, a bit emotional. At first, Clarke declined ODU’s offer, delivered early during his senior season, to see if anyone else would become interested.
That didn’t last long. Dee met Clarke at Atlee High School, and after a heated discussion, he finally committed to ODU in October 2013.
“Coach Dee was quite a guy,” he said. “He told me if I come to ODU, I would have a good career.”
Even then, it was clear he was a second-tier recruit. He was a so-called “grey-shirt” player who would sign with ODU, but not enroll until the spring semester.
Finally, just before signing day, ODU upgraded his offer, asking him to enroll right away.
“Signing with ODU was the best thing I ever did,” he said. “I’ve loved it here.”
It’s been great for ODU, too. The guy no one wanted, that Campbell rejected, that nearby Richmond, William & Mary and James Madison wanted no part of, has developed into a standout player.
When ODU visits Rice in its final game Saturday, it will be his 43rd consecutive start at center.
It’s difficult to describe a center’s contribution statistically, because generally, they don’t compile stats. Yet Clarke has built an outstanding resumé at ODU.
And that's not just because he wears my favorite number: 63 was my number in high school.
After redshirting in 2014, Clarke had an immediate impact in 2015, and believe me, that’s difficult for a lineman to do. The offensive line is often the most arduous position to make the transition from high school to college because it requires so much physical strength and mental acumen.
O-linemen are generally the smartest guys on the field.
Nick Clarke with grandparents June and Vernon (Punky) Clarke, who live in Richmond.
Yet Clarke played in all 12 games and started nine as a redshirt freshman. In 2016, the year the Monarchs won 10 games and defeated Eastern Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl, he started all 13 games. It would be the first of three consecutive years that he would be nominated for the Rimington Award, given to the nation’s best center.
He was a Conference USA honorable-mention choice last season, when he missed just one offensive play.
Yes, a lot of things have gone wrong for ODU, but tell me, when’s the last time you saw a bad snap from center? ODU plays a shotgun offense that requires Clarke not only to block, but to snap the ball to the quarterback about 7 yards behind him.
He’s the one who calls out changes in blocking assignments if the defense appears set to blitz.
In other words, there’s a ton of responsibility on his rather impressive shoulders.
Offensive line coach Chris Malone said that Clarke has been the line’s anchor. And he’s done it on a pair of weak knees.
Clarke, who is 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, began having knee issues after his sophomore season. He had surgery on one knee at the end of spring workouts after last season. The surgery was successful, but both knees still need tender, loving care.
He doesn’t miss many plays, and never misses practice, but coach Bobby Wilder said the Monarchs have been careful with his practice time.
“Nick is so valuable for us,” he said. “We hold him out of drills sometimes and sometimes when we have the guys run, we hold him out as well. We’re careful with how much we work him.”
He’s not to the point where teammate Chad Hendricks was when he retired midway through his senior season because his knees were shot. But his Clarke’s knees get treatment every day, usually from trainer Angela Moening.
“The amount of work Angela puts in nearly every week to help get me healthy is amazing,” he said.
“I never want to come out of a game. I never want to miss a play.
“This is my senior year. I want to play as much as I can.”
Clarke already graduated and is working on a master’s degree in sports management. He dreams of negotiating contracts for athletes as a player agent.
Nick Clarke with grandparents Sandy and Gordon Cooper, who come to many ODU games even though they live in upstate New York.
Clarke had a good home life, but there was just enough economic uncertainty to instill a strong work ethic in him and his brother, Colby, and sister, Savannah.
His mother, Cheryl, has long worked as a school teacher. His father, Kevin, a former William & Mary football player, was successful in the family’s cheesecake business. But when it got sold, he had to reinvent himself in a tough economy.
“At times, my dad was in and out of jobs, but he was so persistent,” Clarke said. “He did all kinds of things to keep us afloat. It’s not like we were ever in a dire situation. But I saw how hard my parents worked and that stuck with me.
“Our parents did a great job raising us.”
Clarke lives off campus in Larchmont, a mere long snap from S.B. Ballard Stadium.
The home he lives in is the site of a tailgate session before every game, one that Clarke has never been able to attend. His parents are always there, as are his grandparents on his father’s side, Vernon (Punky) Clarke and June Clarke, who also live in the Richmond area.
Punky, by the way, introduced himself to me during his grandson’s first spring game, and has emailed me via perhaps 100 times since. He loves his grandson. If Nick indeed wants to become an agent, I hope he inherited Punky's persistence.
It’s more difficult for his mom’s parents, Gordon and Sandy Kuster, to make it to Norfolk. They live in Stephentown, N.Y., where the Empire State comes together with Vermont and Massachusetts. Because Gordon has health problems, he hasn’t made it to a game this year.
“But watch every game on TV," he said.
“They have all played huge roles in my life, getting me where I am and they mean a lot to me.”
How much? He calls them all, his parents, grandparents and siblings before and after every game.
Clarke said his five years at ODU have flown by.
“It hasn’t hit me yet that this is our last game, the last game I’ll have with all of my brothers,” he said.
He has great memories, especially from the Bahamas Bowl and the 49-35 victory over Virginia Tech on Sept. 22. In spite of Tech’s poor performance much of the rest of the season, that game goes down as the greatest victory in ODU history.
“They’re an ACC team,” he said. “We’re not supposed to beat ACC teams. And yet we did.”
ODU has won its last two games. The Monarchs erased a 28-point deficit in a 34-31 victory over North Texas, then crushed VMI 77-14, scoring the most points in their 10 seasons.
That, Clarke says, is the real ODU.
When I asked him why ODU is 4-7, how the Monarchs started 0-3 in games they were favored to win, he said he and his teammates have repeatedly asked themselves the same question.
“This is definitely the most talented team we’ve had,” he said. “That may be hard for people to believe. We had Taylor Heinicke and Zack Pascal and Rashaad Coward here,” he said of three players now in the NFL.
Nick Clarke's best memory at ODU? Beating Virginia Tech, 49-35, on Sept. 22.
“But we’ve got so much experience at every position. This is a well-rounded team. None of us seniors wanted to go out like this.”
There were weather issues in ODU’s first three games, especially the 28-25 loss at Charlotte, which was played on the road after the football team left Norfolk to escape a hurricane. The game was played two days early with less than 24 hours’ notice.
ODU was 0-3 and given no chance to upset Virginia Tech. The Monarchs not only defeated the Hokies, they beat them up physically.
“Maybe it was just the perfect storm,” he said, referring to standout offensive performances by quarterback Blake LaRussa, running back Jeremy Cox and wide receivers Travis Fulgham and Jonathan Duhart.
“I’m so glad it happened, because it was such a great moment. The crowd was just awesome that night. I’ll never forget that game, not even if I live to be 100. “If we’d played like that the rest of this season, we’d be in a much different place.
“I’ve had a great time here, a great career. That was because coach Dee and Kyle Jolly believed in me. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have made it.”
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