Detrich Clark isn’t a normal football player.
The Montezuma, Ga. native has sub-4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash and lined up as a wide receiver, running back, quarterback and kick returner in his first season at Colorado State. Despite not seeing the field on a play-by-play basis, Clark was electric with the ball in his hands.
Of players with at least 30 carries on the season, Clark led the team with 6.9 yards per carry. In just 45 touches on offense, he rushed for three touchdowns and caught another. Clark added a touchdown pass to Michael Gallup in the final game of the regular season against San Diego State and was the team’s leading returner throughout the season. Not normal.
His versatile playmaking ability is something that the CSU football team has certainly welcomed. In addition to lining him up nearly anywhere on the field, he forces defenses to focus on his big-play potential. When he was on the field, defenders knew that the Rams wanted to call his number. Even then, Clark showed his ability to terrorize opposing defenses.
While speed comes naturally to Clark, route running is the area of Clark’s game that has needed improvement. Having never played exclusively at wide receiver, routes have never been Clark’s main focus. That is until this offseason when coaches and quarterbacks encouraged the speedster to focus more on the intricacies of the wide receiver position.
“He’s got good short area quickness, he’s a very strong runner, he’s got strong hands,” head coach Mike Bobo said. “The part that we needed to improve on was the route running, where he could be an every-down player…and he’s improved on that part.”
Throughout his career with CSU, Clark has not had a defined role. Sure, he could be plugged in at multiple positions and make an impact when his number was called, but his playing time has been indefinite. Now, there is a clear role for Clark to take over, and Bobo believes he has the talent to do so.
Over last year’s second-half triumphs on offense, one of the unsung heroes was slot receiver Robert Ruiz. The team’s third-leading receiver and only punt returner from last season is gone, and Clark has worked effortlessly to fill the void.
“When we started rolling there at the end of the year, Robert Ruiz played a lot for us and made a lot of big plays over the middle of the field in the slot position and in the return game,” Bobo said. “We need somebody to fill that void, and Detrich is the guy who’s done a nice job of doing that.”
Along with learning from a strong route runner in Ruiz, Clark has the privilege of playing with one of the strongest receiving corps in the Mountain West. Senior Michael Gallup and junior Olabisi Johnson both broke out last season, and their knowledge of the position is something that Clark takes advantage of whenever he can.
“Those guys I would say at the position are a lot more seasoned than I am, so any time I can pick their brain I take that opportunity,” Clark said of Gallup and Johnson. “I learn whatever I can from them, whether it’s lining up, splits, leverage, anything. Even thinking back to the spring, I’ve progressed a lot. There’s still some things I could work on, but I’ve progressed a lot from last season, so I’m feeling pretty confident.”
Despite the importance of speed and physicality in a receiver, no other attribute may be more important than route running. A speed receiver can only run by a defensive back so many times before a defense begins to game plan for speed. Similarly, a physical receiver is less productive if he cannot get open.
The same cannot be said about a tactical route runner. Mastering footwork and technique allows receivers to get off the line of scrimmage, beat their defender and find open space on the field with more frequency. Clearly, this is not a task that just comes to receivers.
Clark realized that this offseason, actively working on this part of his game that he and quarterback Nick Stevens recognized was not a strong suit.
“He’s always been fast, he’s always been somebody who we want to get the ball to,” Stevens said. “But [the coaching staff] stressed that we need to get him running better routes for us, and he’s definitely done a great job of that. He really did a good job of attacking it instead of being like ‘I don’t want to do that.’ He really worked on his craft and improved in an area he wasn’t the greatest in.”
What’s even more encouraging is that Clark’s speed is not going anywhere. The same attribute that made him one of the Rams’ most explosive players last season is still the defining characteristic of his game. If his route running can catch up to the other aspects of his game, Bobo believes that Clark has clear breakout potential.
“Hopefully you’ll see improvement from him throughout this year like you saw from Gallup and Bisi last year,” Bobo said. “It won’t be that finished product early on, but if he continues to work and listen to (wide receiver) coach Whitted week in and week out, I think you can see that improvement from him at receiver.”
And if that jump happens, Clark’s versatility won’t be the only thing defenses are focusing on.
“He’s going to be more of a receiver that we can do other things with now instead of just somebody that we just do tricky stuff with,” Stevens said. “He’s definitely developed a ton and become somebody we can depend on in the passing game.
Collegian sports editor Colin Barnard can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @ColinBarnard_.