James Clark Has Found a Role as a Kick Returner and Backup Receiver

When news broke that Ohio State grad transfer James Clark was heading to Virginia Tech, it was a surprise to many. Clark hadn’t been on anyone’s radar and news of his decision took over a week to go from the Daytona Beach News-Journal to Blacksburg.

The addition was a surprise, but one that brought lots of intrigue due largely to his pedigree as a former four-star wide receiver who spent some time at Ohio State. The move did made a lot of sense given how Clark was an experienced receiver, something that the Hokies lacked after the departures of Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges.

However, there were also some red flags coming from low production and injuries early in his collegiate career. While at Ohio State, James Clark had 6 receptions for 47 yards, all of which came in 2016. Clark also had injury issues in 2014 and 2015 that limited him to six games, and forced him to take a medical redshirt in 2014.

This combination of positives and negatives led to a wide range of expectations for how productive Clark would be. Entering the season opener, it looks like Clark will land right in the middle of those expectations.

Though Clark won’t be a starter, he’s likely to gain some reps as a backup behind Eric Kumah on Virginia Tech’s first depth chart. Clark gives the Hokies a veteran receiver who should be comfortable playing on a big stage to start the season, having played in some big games on offense and special teams with the Buckeyes. This could be valuable if

Clark has impressive speed as a former track star at Ohio State who’s personal best 100 meter dash time is 10.59. Clark also was the lead leg on Ohio State’s 400-meter relay team that finished ninth in the NCAA Championships, earning the relay team Second Team All-American honors.

The Hokies will look to take advantage of that speed and will likely use Clark both on the outside and in the slot. In the slot, Clark has ideal speed to be dangerous on jet sweeps while also having a little more size to take hits, something that also will help him on any quick pass routes like a slant, or an in or out route.

On the outside, Clark could be used to take the top off of a defense or on screen passes where the Hokies can get his speed in space quickly. Clark may not be used a lot on the outside but you could see VT look to use him out there when Dalton Keene or Chris Cunningham are working in the slot, shifting some speed to the edge of the field.

While Clark’s speed can help him make plays on offense, it can be more dangerous in a role most didn’t expect Clark to be in.

Virginia Tech’s first depth chart revealed that James Clark would be the Hokies’ kick returner with Mook Reynolds as his backup. The news was a big surprise after most expected Henri Murphy to be VT’s kick returner due to his strong finish to the 2016 season in which he averaged 26.8 yards per return.

However, it’s clear that Clark has earned Justin Fuente’s trust to take Murphy’s job.

“Well, he’s really fast. He is a senior, he’s an older guy. Kind of like Mook [Reynolds], he’s an older guy and a trustworthy guy. We feel good about both of those guys. James [Clark] has been consistent throughout practice, that’s what we talk about all the time at all of our positions. Every day at practice is an audition to earn your teammates and coaches’ trust, and every day at practice you either add to that trust or you take away from that trust. Our time with James, he’s added to that trust.” – Fuente on James Clark (August 28th)

James Clark has done the two things that are required to be a starter for Justin Fuente, be consistent in practice and earn Fuente’s trust.

Clark brings plenty of veteran experience having played on special teams while at Ohio State. Though Clark wasn’t a return man for the Buckeyes, Clark should bring experience and understanding of what his blockers should be doing to create holes for him.

More than anything else, Clark has the type of elite speed that coaches dream of their kick returner having. We saw Virginia Tech’s kick returns improve significantly when Henri Murphy took over last season. The numbers speak for themselves with the change as Murphy averaged 5.9 more yards per kick return than Greg Stroman. Stroman is fairly quick in his own right but Murphy is one of the ACC’s fastest players, and that speed made a significant difference.

Now, the Hokies have a more experienced, possibly faster version of Murphy in James Clark who should be able to make smarter decisions on which holes to take. That combination of skills shows Clark’s potential to be dynamic on kick returns with the potential to get through holes before an opposing kick coverage player can fill it.

Obviously, Clark has a lot to prove as someone who has never returned a kick at the collegiate level. However, Clark has the tools to become an effective kick returner and has shown the consistency that Justin Fuente is looking for.

Entering this season, Clark has the biggest role of his collegiate career as a return man and a backup receiver. Clark should have the opportunities to surpass his 2016 stats of 6 receptions and 47 yards in an offense that will be looking to have a deeper rotation of wide receivers this year.

When James Clark chose to transfer the Hokies, it took around nine days for the news to go from Florida to Blacksburg. Months after his decision, Clark now has the chance to make some news and flip a game’s momentum in under nine seconds.

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