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Friday, April 11, 2003
Updated: April 14, 9:33 AM ET
 
Move to tight end leads Clark to NFL
By John Clayton
ESPN.com

When Kirk Ferentz arrived in Iowa as the head coach, he and his staff knew he was in college football's version of Smallville. His Clark Kents were going to have to be found under the radar of major college recruiters.

His staff took nothing for granted. Tight ends could be molded into offensive linemen, and no good athlete would be neglected. As he looked around the weightroom and the field in 1999, he came to a stunning conclusion. His best athlete was an unknown 205-pounder named Dallas Clark. This Clark Kent, though, didn't have a position.

Dallas Clark
Dallas Clark caught 43 passes for 742 yards last season for Iowa.
"You talk about a kid who came out of nowhere," said Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle. "He was a 6-foot-2 high-school quarterback from a small town. He was on a horrible team but he was the best athlete in town. He was completely unrecruited. As a quarterback, he was average. But he was a great athlete."

On draft day, this small town unknown will complete an incredible story. Through hard work and great coaching, Clark is competing against Jason Witten to be the first tight end taken in the draft. He could end up going in the first round, but all agree he should have a long career as an NFL tight end.

"I joke around and call him 'The Natural' like Roy Hobbs," Doyle said. "We all expected to find out he played before in a previous league."

Clark showed up at Iowa without ceremony. He arrived on campus in 1998 but only as a student. His high school only had 32 graduates his senior year. He took two classes at Iowa as a freshman and didn't play football. A broken collarbone from a summer baseball accident killed any chance of playing football in 1998.

"When we got there, he made the team as a walk-on at linebacker," Doyle said. "It didn't take us long to recognize that he was one of the best players on the team. He redshirted in 1999 and was a backup linebacker and special teams player in 2000. He lifted weights and increased his weight from 210 to 215 to 220. After that he started to add about eight pounds a year."

Clark was all business, a workaholic. He ate well. He drank a gallon of water every day. He rarely partied. What amazed Ferentz and his coaches was Clark's amazing ability to change directions while on the run. It's the best they've ever seen.

Recognizing that ability to change directions quickly, Ferentz kept talking to him about switching from linebacker to tight end.

"I resisted the move to tight end at first," Clark said. "I wanted to be a better linebacker than my brother. I kept saying 'no.' "

In 2001, Ferentz made the decision to move Clark to tight end. It seemed so natural. He watched Clark run around the field before practice catching the football. Things clicked. The ability to change directions coupled with good hands would make Clark an asset to the offense. After all, Clark was the best athlete in the eyes of the coaches, so he was going to be a work in progress until they found his right position.

Clark caught 78 passes during his two seasons at tight end, but those weren't his most impressive numbers. Those came in his workouts before NFL teams. His 20-yard short shuttle time was an amazing 3.85 seconds, perhaps one of the best ever by a tight end prospect. His three-cone drill was 6.33 seconds. He had a 37 1/2 inch vertical jump.

Considering that good cornerbacks have a time of 3.95 seconds in the 20-yard short shuttle, Clark confirmed on the clock what the coaches saw in practices and in games. Clark has an advantage going against defenders in short passing routes because he gets into his route so fast. It also allows him to break away and make bigger plays.

"Dallas has tremendous lower body strength," Doyle said. "He's now 257 pounds, so when you think that you have a 257-pound guy changing directions so fast, you can see he's something special. His change of direction time is the best ever."

When we got there, he made the team as a walk-on at linebacker. It didn't take us long to recognize that he was one of the best players on the team. He redshirted in 1999 and was a backup linebacker and special teams player in 2000. He lifted weights and increased his weight from 210 to 215 to 220. After that he started to add about eight pounds a year.
Chris Doyle, Iowa strength coach

As natural an athlete as Clark is at tight end, he should only get better in the pros. At Iowa, he would make arrangements each day to have a quarterback throw to him. When no quarterback was available, he turned on the Jugs Machine.

Clark may not be as highly rated as Jeremy Shockey of the Giants was before last year's draft, but he works hard enough to remind NFL teams of what they saw when they studied Shockey.

"Last year was a really good group of tight ends and had Shockey go in the first round," Clark said. "Jeremy is a superior tight end. I don't think this group of tights ends this year has quite as much hype as those guys last year, but I think we are ready for the challenge."

Leaving Iowa a year early was a tough decision, though. He had been at Iowa for what seemed to be an eternity. He wrote the NFL advisory committee, who informed him he should go in the second round. That inspired him to work harder to try to get into the first round.

"I had to be selfish and try to see what was the best for me," Clark said. "The committee said second round, but a lot has happened since then. Teams are finding out more about me and the things I need to work on. I see myself as being a pass-receiving tight end, but I want to become a complete tight end."

The tight end position is still new to him, but he is well coached in the fundamentals. Being a high-school quarterback and a linebacker early in his college career, Clark has a good understanding of defenses and what to do against defenses.

"I have an advantage as a pass-receiver, but I've only played two years at tight end," Clark said. "I think my pass receiving is a natural ability. I think mentally, I kinda understand defense a little more. Jeremy Shockey is a gifted athlete. I'm not a football freak like he is. He's a well-rounded athlete. I'm definitely not that."

Ferentz might disagree with that. Shockey was surrounded by great athletes at Miami. Shockey-type athletes don't generally make their way to Iowa. As soon as he arrived in Iowa, Ferentz recognized he had a potential star in Clark. He waited until his body matured and then found his best position.

Score one for Smallville.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.