Steve Jackson, the Redskins' safeties coach, says Ryan Clark's game is based first and foremost on one thing. "Intestinal fortitude, that's what Ryan brings, more than anything else," Jackson says.
In 2004, a number of players stepped up and played better than expected for the Redskins. You could put the likes of Lemar Marshall, Chris Cooley, Antonio Pierce and Demetric Evans in that category.
Yet, in terms of pleasant surprises, Clark, the 5-11, 200-pound safety out of LSU, was the biggest of them all. He finished the season with 91 tackles, fourth best on the team and tops among Redskin defensive backs.
This from a player who entered the league as an undrafted free agent back in 2002 with the New York Giants. After he had a tough time sticking in New York, Clark made it to the Redskins last July 31, signed as an unrestricted free agent.
When Matt Bowen went down with a serious knee injury as he tried to make a special teams play on Week 5 versus Baltimore, assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams turned to Clark.
On his first play, Clark found himself in the gap, with Ravens' running back Jamal Lewis, who outweighs him by roughly 50 pounds, charging hard.
"I made the stop," Clark recalls, "and it seemed to fire up our defense. When a big player like LaVar Arrington or Marcus Washington makes a play for us, that's one thing. But when somebody like me makes a good tackle, it gives everybody a lift. That's what happened on that play."
In truth, Clark made a name for himself in that game, and he went on to exceed expectations filling in for injured safeties Bowen and Andre Lott.
Preparing for his fourth NFL season, Clark has built upon his reputation as a tough tackler for his size. During the recently concluded mini-camp, he was in the mix with Bowen, Lott and new Redskin Pierson Prioleau, as that group worked out for Jackson. Sean Taylor did not participate, owing to his off-the-field difficulties stemming from a recent incident in South Florida.
What Clark is adding to his game this year, he says, is the ability to improve on his reads. "What coach Jackson has been stressing," Clark adds, "is the importance of letting your eyes take in more of the field, to put you in a better position to make plays. Let your eyes do more of the work, your feet will follow."
"Ryan is a very smart football player," Williams says. "He's reached the point where he understands how to play the game. Coaches have to be impressed with players like Ryan who go full throttle."
Against the Ravens in that game at FedExField a year ago, which the Redskins lost 17-10, Clark was exceptional as he came up with 12 tackles versus Lewis and company. Clark added 12 tackles versus Cincinnati and 11 at Detroit.
"I really was blessed to have the opportunity I got last year," Clark says. "The coaches here gave me a chance, and that gave me a great deal of confidence. I think my teammates respect me, and that's what's most important. I want people to say, 'That No. 25, he goes hard on every play.'"
Asked about Jackson's "intestinal fortitude" comment, Clark said: "That's nice to hear. For me, I've never been given anything as a football player. There are no guarantees in the NFL. So I have to play every play with a sense of urgency. I have to look for ways to contribute on every play."
Those are some of the lessons Clark learned as a senior at LSU. The pre-season magazines had Clark touted as a very talented player as the free safety for LSU. The problem was that Clark read too many of those press clippings. He played poorly in the first four games of his senior before turning it around on Week 5 versus Kentucky in an SEC matchup.
To this day, Clark remembers a conversation he had with LSU coach Nick Saban, now the head coach for the Miami Dolphins, after the slow start to his senior season.
"That got me turned around," Clark says. "Coach Saban just told me to look for ways to make a difference on every play, even if you're not able to make a big play."
Last training camp, in the early days of his Redskins career, Clark was the subject of ill-founded media reports that the Redskins had decided to part ways with him. Clark was able to put that matter behind him, though, as he developed into a solid NFL player over an extended period for the first time in his career.
Says Jackson: "Ryan's humble, and a really hard worker. His teammates and coaches respect both of those qualities."