If a Texas Tech quarterback gets tackled in the backfield, offensive line coach Lee Hays would rather chalk it up to somebody other than left tackle Le’Raven Clark. Clark’s sparkling reputation can do without the stain.
So fellow tackle Rashad Fortenberry has to take one for the team.
“I always tell Rashad it was his sack,” Hays said jokingly. “That’s the running joke, that I give them all to Rashad, because I don’t want Le’Raven to have any. Rashad might be done this year, and we want to try to get Le’Raven all-American next year, so we’re giving (Fortenberry) all the sacks.”
Luckily for Tech, the Red Raiders have been able to keep sacks reasonably low this season. They’ve allowed 24 in 645 pass attempts, an average of one sack for about 27 attempts.
Though the Red Raiders have often been frustrated trying to convert yards into points, they led the nation in passing offense going into this weekend. Reliable play at tackle has had something to do with it.
When the year started, Clark was coming off a freshman all-America campaign in 2012, but also switching from right guard to left tackle. And Fortenberry was coming off a string of injuries that stalled his progress last season, then in the spring and once again in preseason practice.
Now he’s shaken the injury bug long enough to start every game of his senior season at right tackle.
“They’ve both been real steady,” Hays said.
Tech (7-4, 4-4 in the Big 12) closes the regular season with a game on Thanksgiving night at Texas (7-3, 6-1). Clark’s one of the few Red Raiders who was recruited by the Longhorns, and their pursuit of him was late, at that.
Clark’s hometown, Rockdale, is only an hour from Austin. Not long before the 2011 national signing day, Clark said Texas sent an assistant coach to Rockdale High School to try to pry him from a months-long commitment to Tech.
Asked what his reaction was to getting an offer from Texas, Clark said, “Nothing. My coach was like, ‘Texas is in there.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ It really didn’t make a difference to me. I hadn’t been much of a fan of them.”
Clark, viewed as a key signee 21/2 years ago, has done nothing to disappoint. He estabished himself last season, earning freshman all-America recognition from the Football Writers Association of America. This season, he’s handled the move from one side of the line to the other and from inside to the flank, where he’s dealing with speed rushers.
“His athleticism is as good as anybody in the country,” Hays said. “He gets better. He’s a student of the game. Sometimes if they come out in a different look, he’ll adjust on his own and adjust his set based off what he’s seeing, which makes it easy for me. That allows me to help some of the other guys.”
Clark said the adjustment phsyically was no big deal — he’d always played left tackle in high school, so returning to that spot didn’t bother him.
“Stepping up, taking a leader (role) on the O-line was the main part about it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Fortenberry secured the right-tackle spot, which wasn’t a given for much of the last year. Since transferring to Tech from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Fortenberry’s had to recover from back problems during the 2012 season, an ankle sprain that caused him to miss nearly all of spring practice and arthroscopic knee surgery that sidelined him at the beginning of preseason workouts.
Coaches always have spoken highly of Fortenberry’s work habits and attitude, however. That’s still evident. He often stays 15 minutes or so after practice working to polish his technique. His hands. His footwork. Staying square. He spends extra time on every aspect.
And his health’s allowed him to stay in the lineup.
“I’ve been pretty good,” Fortenberry said. “I’ve had bumps here and there, but nothing major. When I first got here last year, the whole year I was injured. I’m just happy and thankful I haven’t been injured this year.”
Before long, Hays will be looking for a new set of bookends. Fortenberry has two games left in his college career. On paper, Clark has two seasons left, but Hays isn’t sure he’ll be with the Red Raiders that long. Clark’s talent could make him an early entry for the NFL draft after the 2014 season.
“I hope I do (have him two more years), but we’ll see,” Hays said. “I don’t know that we will. Le’Raven’s pretty good. By the end of next year ... . I have high expectations for Le’Raven, and he has high expectations for himself. He should graduate next year, too, so it’ll be up to him if he wants to come back for that (senior) year.”
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