Larger Clarke Hopes To Play Bigger Role

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Remember the first day of school when some kid showed up looking radically different thanks to a new haircut or a few inches of added height?

It was a little bit like that for defensive end Will Clarke when the players returned to Paul Brown Stadium in late April to begin voluntary workouts.

The former West Virginia standout caught the eyes of his teammates by arriving with nearly 20 pounds of added muscle.

"They were happy to see that I took this offseason seriously, and I took heed of what the coaches were telling me," said Clarke.

The 24-year-old was listed at 6'6", 271 pounds last season. When the Bengals drafted Clarke in the third round, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther noted in a post-pick news conference that Will had a body frame that could support 290 pounds. It took just one offseason for Clarke to get there after working out under Cincinnati-based strength coach Jim Riggs.

"I didn't have any instances (last season) where I felt that I was overpowered or got pancaked or anything like that – I just knew that it was something that I wanted to do and something that the coaches advised would be a beneficial thing to my career," said Clarke.

"He's worked at it hard and hopefully he'll maintain it because that's always a battle for young guys," said defensive line coach Jay Hayes. "The weight doesn't stay on until you get a little older sometimes, but he did a good job of putting it on and I think he'll continue to get stronger going forward."

After appearing in seven regular season games as a rookie, the Bengals are counting on Clarke to play a bigger role in 2015.

"I'm more comfortable because I know a lot more and I'm not learning everything for the first time," said Clarke. "Things are so much clearer. I look at the playbook now and it's so easy to pick up. Last year I would look at things three or four times. Now everything is starting to click easier."

The overall goal is to have a deeper rotation on the defensive line. Last season, five defensive linemen played more than 600 snaps. In six of the previous seven seasons, there were never more than three D-linemen that spent that much time on the field.

"That's a huge priority," said Coach Hayes. "It's what we do."

The return of free agent Michael Johnson obviously boosts the Bengals' depth up front, and Clarke says that Johnson's return is going to benefit him as well.

"It helps me a lot," said Clarke. "Michael is a good guy and a good teammate. He wants everyone to succeed, so even though we are all competing with each other, we are still trying to have one common goal and that's to be the best defensive line in the NFL. He's taken me under his wing and is teaching me and giving me advice about things going into his second year that he could have done or should have done."

Johnson went from playing 370 snaps off the bench as a rookie in 2009 to starting 10 games and playing 678 snaps in his second season.

Clarke hopes to show that he deserves a significant bump in playing time when the Bengals open training camp next month.

"I'm very eager," he told me. "I just want to take advantage of practice reps and the preseason games to show everyone in the organization how much I improved."

"You can see that he's developing," said Hayes. "Now we just need to see him do it when we put pads on."

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