Last fall camp Braxton Clark was pushing for immediate playing time.
A then-true freshman cornerback from Orlando, Florida, Clark was amongst the defense’s leaders in picks. And that group included seasoned vets like Tre Neal, Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed. Clark was playing on talent and physical gifts.
He’s 6-foot-4. He’s bigger and longer that Lamar Jackson. When wideout Jaevon McQuitty first saw Clark, that’s who he reminded him of.
“I knew he was going to be a fun, physical, fast corner,” McQuitty said. “It’s hard to find bigger corners that can actually play the position, so seeing him be able to actually play it is really impressive.”
But then the year began and play sped up and playing smart was just as important as playing free. Clark had opportunities to play, but only made it into four games — the fourth quarter against Michigan, Minnesota and Bethune-Cookman, and then the season finale against Iowa — before redshirting. Injuries weren’t a problem, neither was being physically ready.
“It was more being in the playbook,” Clark said.
Clark spent as much time as he could in the defensive backs’ meeting room watching and listening. Listening to Neal talk, watching the way Dicaprio Bootle reacted to different things he saw on the field. He took pieces from both Jackson and Bootle and added them to his game as he tried to gain some comfort in defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s system.
“When he first got here — I mean, it was fall camp — he seemed kind of confused,” McQuitty said. But he doesn’t anymore. “He’s more comfortable with the system, he’s more comfortable with his coaches, he’s more comfortable with the speed.”
Junior safety Deontai Williams said the biggest area of growth in Clark’s game this summer is in his thinking on the field. His reactions are quicker. There aren’t any wasted steps anymore. He doesn’t reach and he’s staying stride for stride with the receiver he’s covering. McQuitty said Clark is getting more comfortable using his length. “That irritates me when I go up against him,” the receiver said.
“I would say (I worked on) just being the smartest player on the field,” Clark said of his goal for this offseason. “My IQ. Just being ahead of everybody — two steps ahead of the QB, two steps ahead of the wide receiver — and just being able to make plays.”
He was limited through spring ball but he’s good to go now. Clark came to Lincoln weighing around 188, but now he’s up to 205. Bulking up was something secondary coach Travis Fisher wanted to see from him last year, and even then he had no issues putting Clark in games.
Against Minnesota, and 6-foot-4, 240-pound wideout Seth Green, Fisher threw Clark into the fire. He put his biggest guy on Minnesota’s biggest guy, Clark’s inexperience didn’t matter. And stuff like that has helped. Clark said the ups and downs of his freshman season — both individually (not playing) and collectively (you know… the losing) — helped him figure out the kind of player he wanted to be. While others started letting go of the rope, he tried to stay ready.
“(Fisher)’s a guy where whoever’s playing the best, that’s what matters,” Clark said. “That feels good because it lets me know I have an even opportunity with the other guy, too.”
“It helps big time because you’re going to get your experience,” Williams added. “It helps with your shivers. He’ll put you in a big-time moment in the game and you’ve just got to be ready.”
While guys like Eric Lee Jr. and Cam Taylor spent time in the spring taking safety reps, when Clark was on the field, he was at corner. “A pure corner,” Williams said. Four defensive backs arrive this summer — Noa Pola-Gates, Javin Wright, Myles Farmer and Quinton Newsome — and all four of them could start out at either defensive back position.
The new guys have fanfare, but don’t forget about Clark. With Jackson and Bootle occupying the top spots at corner, Clark could very well be the first corner off the bench for Fisher next year. He’s got a year’s worth of work as a head start.
“You need that work ethic, that tells you he wants to be great,” Williams said. “(He’s) somebody that’s got a whole bunch of potential to be a first-round pick.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.