Friday, December 3, 2004

Ryan Clark hasn’t forgotten what New York Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis told him last spring.

Clark, who played in 22 games and started four at cornerback and free safety in 2002 and 2003 under the previous coaching staff, wanted to know how he could keep his job.

“Coach Lewis said, ‘The [player personnel people] just don’t think you can tackle,’” Clark recalled. “‘They don’t think you can fill the hole and make the tackle.’”

With that in mind, the Giants cut Clark on May 27. On the recommendation of Redskins defensive backs coach Dewayne Walker, who had coached Clark in New York, Washington signed him July 31 to replace injured rookie free agent safety Dennard Wilson.

Built more like a kicker than a strong safety at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, Clark was supposed to be just another training camp body. Instead, as the Redskins prepare to face the Giants tomorrow, the 25-year-old LSU product is fourth on the team with 70 tackles though he didn’t become a regular until Matt Bowen suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5.

“The Giants had really only seen me play nickel back, where your mentality is different,” Clark said. “You don’t have to be a big hitter when you’re chasing [smallish Cowboys receiver] Terry Glenn. The last time we played the Giants, it was my first game as a Redskin, and I didn’t even know I was going to play until Coach [Steve] Jackson came up to me at halftime and asked if I knew I my assignments. I was just excited about being back on the field with those guys.

“This time, I’m not going to be nice and wish them good luck because I don’t really mean it. I’m not a big guy, but I knew I could make tackles and hit the way I have. I’m happy that I’ve been able to hold up while doing it. I’m still playing the same way I always have. I’m going to have 100 tackles in 11 games. Hopefully I’ve proved those guys wrong. I want to go out there on Sunday and make some big hits.”

On a Redskins defense filled with overachievers, Clark might be the best story. Linebacker Lemar Marshall was a holdover. Defensive tackle Joe Salave’a was a favorite of assistant head coach/defense Gregg Williams from their days in Tennessee and won a job at one of the Redskins’ thinnest positions.

But Clark came into camp behind returning starters Bowen and Ifeanyi Ohalete, as well as No.1 draft choice Sean Taylor and returning reserves Andre Lott and Todd Franz. There was no way the Redskins would keep six safeties, and Clark wasn’t fast enough to be a backup corner.

However, the Redskins cut Ohalete, leaving perhaps the final roster spot to Clark, who had a solid preseason. Twelve weeks later, Clark has been more than solid as a starter on the NFL’s No.2 defense.

“Ryan has matured, kind of settled down,” Walker said. “Steve has done a good job with him in terms of the physical part of the game. Ryan is giving us all he’s got. He’s such a smart kid that he was able to pick the system up quickly.

“Ryan’s talent level is just good enough for the league, but he’s a tweener. Size-wise, he’s more of a corner than a safety, but he’s not swift enough to be a corner. Ryan is always going to be one of those guys whom people will try to replace, but if anybody can handle that challenge, it’s him.”

Clark hasn’t shied from the challenge of tackling such power backs as Pittsburgh’s Jerome Bettis, Cincinnati’s Rudi Johnson and Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis. Nor will he shrink from pushing Bowen, who has helped him adjust to strong safety, next summer.

“I play with a lot of heart,” said Clark, who would like to add 10 pounds this offseason. “I try to be as physical as possible. I don’t care who’s running. This will be the first time I train just to play strong safety. I see there might be a niche here for me, just coming up and being a run stopper.”

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