Years ago, legendary college football broadcaster Keith Jackson coined the term “Big Uglies” to refer to linemen.
Since then, football fans have come to think of these “Big Uglies” on the offensive line as hulking, emotionless giants who quietly give running backs or the quarterback time and space to operate.
At 6’4, 306 pounds, Michigan State’s starting right guard Donavon Clark may look the part, but he’s anything but your stereotypical offensive lineman.
Clark is a jolly giant with a caring heart and a distinctive, booming laugh. It’s impossible not to laugh along with him if you’re standing within a 50-foot radius. And now, this big guard is ready to make an impact on the first-team.
Since arriving in East Lansing in 2011, Clark has been a beloved member of the Spartans offensive line.
His teammates often turn to him for a laugh or for a kind word. Clark brings sunshine wherever he goes. Through thick and thin, Clark has been a major source of positive energy in the Spartans locker room.
“If you’re feeling down, go to Donavon, he’s always laughing,” starting left tackle Jack Conklin said. “He’s always upbeat. You never see him sad about anything.”
Clark has always been a good offensive lineman. The Cincinnati native enjoyed a successful career at Finneytown High School and came into Michigan State as a highly touted prospect. After redshirting in 2011, Clark saw action in six games during his freshman season. He made his first career start against Michigan at left tackle.
Last season, the same lovable Clark played even more, working his way into the rotation. He remained a good, but not great, tackle on the MSU offensive line.
However, something changed over the offseason. Clark has still unleashed plenty of whole-hearted bellows and remains a go-to guy if you’re having a bad day.
But now, there’s now a certain air of confidence surrounding him. Those who know him have seen a noticeable change his approach – Clark is more at ease than ever before.
“I’ve just been trying to be more of a leader,” Clark said. “I’ve noticed that watching myself in the film room can help me on the field. [For example,] I’ve been trying to throw out my hands on my pass block schemes. I have to help this team win and win another championship. Whatever I can do on the field or off the field, I’m going to do.”
Clark is ready to take the next step up. As he takes over for the injured Connor Kruse at right guard, Clark is prepared to do whatever is necessary.
The first step for Clark in that process was finding the on-off switch and how to unleash his killer instinct on the field while preserving his kind, caring nature off of it.
This was anything but easy for Clark.
“When I first got here as a freshman, my eyes were wide open, like a deer in the headlights,” he said. “I didn’t know which way I was going. But as time went on, I trained myself off the field and on the field, but I couldn’t do it until my comfortability level went up.”
Offensive line coach Mark Staten agreed with Clark’s analysis – until Clark learned how to utilize that switch, he would never be in a position to succeed.
“If he’s not comfortable, then you don’t get the Don that I know and love, who his teammates know and love,” Staten said. “He’s got to be in a comfortable setting.”
When Clark is at ease, he can do great things, as Staten recognizes.
“For the change that he made, not only being able to switch to the right side, which he couldn’t do a year ago, and play both tackle and guard, is extraordinary,” Staten said. “It’s going to make us a better team for it.”
Now that Clark has his confidence, he’s quickly becoming a team leader.
The junior voices his opinion more often now. Clark can often be heard giving instruction to teammates or setting others straight.
“I’ve noticed that I have to do more to provide more for this team, whether it’s watching film or helping all of the younger guys,” said Clark. “I’ve just been trying to be more of a leader.”
Some have been surprised to see Clark lead, but this skill has been there all along.
“No, [I’m not surprised] at all. I know it’s in him because I see it in meetings, so that didn’t surprise me,” Staten said. “I want it more. I want more of that dawg out of him.”
As with anything, there’s a time for fun and a time for work. When Clark knows that it’s time to work and he encourages others to focus, his teammates listen.
“It definitely throws you off but it calls your attention to it, it means that something is going on,” Conklin said. “It means that he means business about something important. He’s such a happy-go-lucky guy, that when he does call your attention, you listen.”
Clark’s teammates and the Spartan Nation will also pay attention to Clark this season, especially if Jack Conklin’s predication comes true.
“He’s a surprise player who people are going to see come out this year.”
As Clark becomes a force to be reckoned with at right guard, everyone will see a big, bruising lineman with a mean streak. Hopefully the Spartan Nation will also remember Clark’s other side – a caring young man with a heart of gold. As Jack Conklin said:
“He’s just a good person to be around. He makes you happy, he’s such a good guy.” Clark is a great role model for young people and a reminder of the old adage that, “Good guys CAN finish first.” He’s for sure, one of the good guys!