KNOXVILLE — Tennessee defensive tackle Greg Clark has faced a couple of opportunities to quit his dream of playing big-time college football.
The first came before he even made it to campus. The 6-foot-2, 316-pound Clark struggled to post a qualifying ACT score throughout his senior year of high school. It appeared a junior college would be his best option as signing day rolled around in February of 2010. Instead, but he kept working raised his score to the required level and eventually signed with Tennessee on March 30 of that year.
Getting to UT led him to his next challenge. Through three years, he’s been buried on the depth chart and has seen the field in only one game. It would’ve been understandable for him to leave in search of more playing time at an FCS school, but Clark persisted. He hit the weight room, added 35 pounds to his bench press and worked on his quickness and understanding of the defense.
He found himself in the good graces of new defensive line coach John Palermo. Clark worked with the first and second teams in the spring, and even started the Orange and White Game at nose tackle. Now he sits squarely in the contention for playing time at nose tackle.
“It’s a little crazy, but I always felt like if I got a chance, I could prove to everybody that I could play,” Clark said. “It’s just fighting, going in there and playing hard every day.”
Clark, who studies NFL nose tackles B.J. Raji (Packers), Jay Ratliff (Cowboys) and Casey Hampton (Steelers) in his free time, also credits having an entirely different coaching staff and scheme on the defense for his rise up the depth chart. He never found a natural fit in the 4-3 scheme, but he thinks his size and strength make him an ideal nose.
“I’m coming into my own as a player and now I’m helping the team out a lot,” he said. “I feel like nose is a good fit for me and I can use my strength and size to play in there. Nose is very important. You have to have an anchor in that 3-4 defense; you can’t have somebody that can get moved out of there.”
Coach Derek Dooley likes what he’s seen from Clark as well. The redshirt sophomore will have to compete with juniors Maurice Couch, Daniel Hood and Daniel McCullers for playing time inside in 2012, but Dooley envisions Clark being in that mix.
“He’s worked really hard and I think the scheme has helped him — it’s given him a chance,” Dooley said. “He’s going to have some good competition in there with some other guys. But he’s got a good attitude and he’s worked hard.”
Palardy feeling healthy: It’s no secret that kicker Michael Palardy hasn’t lived up to expectations in his two years. He’s made only 66.7-percent of his field goals and has missed a couple of important extra points.
The junior thinks 2012 will be different because he has put a long line of small nagging injuries behind him.
“(I’m feeling the best) since before I even got here,” Palardy said. “I’ve been dealing with little injuries ever since I got here. This offseason has been really good for me. I’m finally healthy.”
Dooley concurred that Palardy’s health looks improved. He’s pleased to see that, but he also wants to continue to prepare Palardy to kick when the lights come on this fall.
“My most important thing for him is to be mentally and physically confident on game day,” Dooley said. “He’s doing good, feeling great now, but we have to keep working on him feeling that way on the big stage.”
Run game takes day one in pads: Sunday was the first day in shoulder pads. The running game came out strong, Dooley said.
“They looked like a bunch of guys that had been kicked around for seven months and wanted to do something about it,” Dooley said of the running game. “The defense came out like it was just another practice.”
The running backs in particular had a strong day. New running backs coach Jay Graham is getting a first chance to put his fingerprints on the unit.
“They ran the ball really well,” Dooley said. “When they got in the secondary, they didn’t stop. Jay’s done a good job.”