Jerrod Clark’s teammates and coaches could see his weight gain during his freshman season, but they couldn’t see the reason behind it.
Clark was recruited to Coastal Carolina as a 6-foot-4, 230-pound three-star tight end out of Brighton High in Massachusetts. He was rated the ninth-best overall prospect in the state by one recruiting service with 26 touchdowns over his final three seasons.
He weighed more than 280 pounds when he arrived on the Conway campus as a freshman in 2018, and was well over 300 pounds by the second semester.
What most didn’t know was during that time Clark was going to be a father . . . and then he wasn’t.
He learned early in his freshman season that his girlfriend was pregnant, and he was initially burdened by the prospect of fatherhood while trying to pursue a football career and degree.
“A lot of stress from my home life contributed to me gaining weight, and it was just happening fast,” Clark said. “It was definitely hard to balance football as a freshman and school, then knowing I was supposed to have a child at the same time.”
The burden spiraled into depression after his girlfriend had a miscarriage nearly six months into her pregnancy on Dec. 18, 2018. The couple was going to have a daughter.
“That triggered a lot of stress and I kind of checked out of school, like my mind wasn’t in school,” Clark said. “I was depressed but I was still practicing. I wasn’t enjoying football at the moment because I was just always sad and stuff. So my depression from losing a child caused me to gain a lot of weight.”
At one point weighing more than 340 pounds, Clark’s days as a tight end were over. But he retained much of the dexterity and agility that made him a star receiver, and that he also displayed while helping Brighton High win a state basketball championship.
And he found a love for football again, though this time as a 335-pound starting redshirt sophomore nose guard on defense.
The skills and renewed passion have coalesced this season to turn Clark into a key piece of a dominant defensive line that has helped Coastal get off to a 3-0 start for the first time as an FBS program.
“I knew he was going to be successful the day he walked in — a guy that big that can move like that,” said CCU junior outside linebacker Jeffrey Gunter. “It took a little while for us to find a place for him to fit into, but man has he really become a major part of our defense, and I think with him being so young it’s only going to get better.”
To find success this season, Clark has had to overcome both physical and emotional challenges in his two-plus years at Coastal.
Clark confided in a couple teammates who became good friends, but he didn’t tell the coaching staff about his personal struggles. “I wasn’t very open with what was going on with me,” he said.
He regained a verve for football after his difficult freshman year, but he became a player without a position.
“Really we were moving him around just to try to get something out of him,” CCU head coach Jamey Chadwell said. “We tried him at O-line a little bit. Then we were like, we’ll just put him at D-line and gave him the opportunity. I said, ‘Either you’re going to lose weight and we’re going to try to move you back to tight end, or we’re going to throw you at D-line and see what happens.’ “
Clark was further encumbered by a pair of injuries. He tore the plantar fascia ligament in a foot during the 2019 fall camp and did not play in a game last season. In spring practices in February, he again became inactive after a partial tear of a shoulder labrum.
“I was trying to turn things around coming in as a sophomore playing defensive line, then I got hurt so then that depression kind of stacked on top of that,” he said. “But I kind of turned it around and used it as positivity and started using it toward football.”
Clark made his greatest strides after the CCU campus was shut down due to the coronavirus in March and he returned to his home outside Boston.
“I had a talk with my dad and he kind of kept it real with me. He was telling me like, ‘You’ve got to start taking stuff serious,’ “ Clark said. “I’m going to be a junior in college and I’ve switched positions, my grades had to be better, and like I just had to be a better person. If I wanted to play the time to change was right now, because I have all this free time and there’s nothing else to do but work out and get ready.
“Anything I could do I figured it out. If I had to just run around the neighborhood park, I’d just do that for a couple hours. Or a couple cone drills, I’d have my dad help me out with stuff like that. I just really had to lock in and tell myself this is what I want, so I had to get after it.”
Clark’s transformation was evident when he returned for summer workouts.
“We really truthfully didn’t think he was going to amount to anything this year because we didn’t know,” said Chadwell, who said he was unsure how fast Clark would recover from his shoulder injury. “Then he changed his whole mindset during the COVID pandemic when he was at home. He worked himself into shape and he came back a new person with a new attitude. I mean his grades are great, girls are actually talking to him now, like the whole dynamic has changed for him.”
A defensive anchor
Clark became a much more important piece of the defense after projected starting nose tackle Jonathan Clayton, a senior, opted out of the season because of the pandemic. The position was already an area of need for the Chants, who signed three potential nose tackles in the 2020 signing class, including one from a junior college.
“That was a huge question mark for us for nose guard . . . and he has been a big plus for us and really filled in nicely,” Chadwell said.
Clark has 10 tackles in three games this season, which is sixth on the team despite often facing double teams when the Chants are in a three-man front, including 1.5 for a loss of yards.
“I feel I might play good, but I haven’t played my best,” said Clark, who amassed 192 tackles and 31 sacks in 35 career starts as a two-way player in high school. “I haven’t got to the level where I’m turning heads. I feel like I’m not turning enough heads as to how I’m playing. I want to be like, ‘Oh snap, who is that? Who’s No. 15? I’ve never heard of him.’ I want to make sure my name is heard all over and until I get there I feel I haven’t done anything.”
The Coastal defense is sixth in the nation among FBS schools with 13 sacks, 14th with 26 tackles for loss, and 15th with six turnovers forced, and is in the top 25 in scoring defense and total defense.
“Up front our main thing is get after the quarterback, get after the running back, cause havoc in the backfield, make them nervous,” Clark said. “That’s our mentality.”
Clark has benefited from having experienced leaders alongside him on the defensive line in C.J. Brewer and Tarron Jackson, who are both senior captains.
“C.J. and Tarron, they help me fit in pretty good. They’re definitely great role models as far as older brothers and veterans on the defensive line,” Clark said. “If I have a question or I feel like I’m not doing something right I’ll go to them and help them get me right so I can perform my best on game day. They have definitely molded me into the nose tackle I am right now. I give all credit to them and [defensive line] coach [Skylor] Magee, of course.”
As evidenced by a smile that has become increasingly present, Clark is enjoying football again.
“I definitely smile a lot more than I used to,” he said. “This is probably the most fun I’ve had with football in a very long time. It’s fun to see us winning. It’s fun to see the sideline get pumped up when we make big plays.”
Clark now uses the memory of his lost daughter as motivation.
“It’s motivation to keep going,” he said. “You’re going to get hit with some adversity in life but you have to just keep going. You can’t dwell on everything. I’d like to believe that God has a plan and everything happens for a reason. So maybe it wasn’t my time to have a child. But I still use her as a motivation to become a better man and better football player and better student.”