Damone Clark flashed in his debut, and with no time to acclimate to NFL game speed, but feels he left plays on the field as well - working hard to regain his LSU form in 2022
FRISCO, Texas — After mauling the Lions, it was a Tiger that helped the Dallas Cowboys do the same to the Bears and, oh my, was it impressive - all things considered. Damone Clark, a rookie fifth-round pick who underwent spinal fusion surgery in March, debuted for the team only seven months later and any plans to ease him in were quickly vaporized.
That's because while Clark and the Cowboys expected he'd primarily be relegated to special teams as a means of ramping him up to the speed and brutality of the NFL game, an injury to Anthony Barr changed everything - the four-time Pro Bowl linebacker exiting in the second quarter with a hamstring injury that kept him sidelined the remainder of the game.
Clark went on to participate in 40 defensive snaps (51%) while still fulfilling his special teams duties to the tune of 17 snaps (59%) for a combined 57 reps on the day - feeling great physically after the hefty workload.
"First off, I just wanna thank God for this opportunity," said Clark after the 49-29 victory over the visiting Bears on Sunday afternoon. "It's been a long time coming. It was a lot of times that I was down [mentally], but these guys in this locker room stayed by my side - no matter what - even though I was on the side [in the rehab group] with Britt [Brown]. These guys always told me, 'It's coming. It's coming.'
"And today was the day."
The former First-Team all-conference linebacker hadn't played a down of football (including missing all of training camp and the preseason) since leaving LSU for the NFL draft this past offseason, and wasn't allowed to return to the field until the Cowboys started his 21-day practice window on Oct. 5 to see if he would be medically cleared to be activated from the non-football injury list (NFI).
He'd receive the green light on Oct. 26, only three days ahead of the Week 8 matchup - going on to tally six tackles (second-most on the team).
He also put his speed on full display when he was clocked in the third quarter at a top speed of 22.19 mph by Next Gen Stats in hunting down Justin Fields at full stride to prevent a potential touchdown after Fields broke loose down the right sideline.
The wizardry landed him the fastest time by any linebacker in the history of NGS (it also bests Micah Parsons' top mark of 20.41 mph), and this is from a 6-foot-2, 240-pound human being.
The word "specimen" is thrown around often in this league, but Clark is quite literally one.
And, speaking of Parsons, the First-Team All-Pro and frontrunner for 2022 Defensive Player of the Year played and continues to play a key role in the development of Clark, having been one of the first players on the Cowboys roster that received calls/texts from the former Tiger following his selection in April; and Parsons helped Clark manage his frustrations during rehab by reassuring him that his "time would come".
It did, on Sunday, and in a big way.
"Thrown into the fire is the right way to put it," said former Pro Bowl linebacker Leighton Vander Esch of Clark's performance. "Damone has been preparing his butt every single day this offseason, since the second he came in. He's an extremely hard worker and very smart. He was super amped up to play. I
"I know he's gonna be a great fit for us on defense. He's gonna be a really good football player for us, but he's an even better person. His character is what's gonna make his NFL career great. … He communicates well with me and everybody, and he [attacks] the ball.
"… We need guys like [him] on this defense."
Clark felt the love and belief from both the locker room and the organization as a whole from Day 1, and it certainly makes for a more deepened adoration from Clark when factoring in it was the Cowboys who discovered his neck injury at the 2022 NFL Combine before then being the team to take a risk on him and, subsequently, get him back to the field in a season that many believed would be a redshirt year for him.
"I wouldn't say just Micah, but I'll start with Micah: Micah, that's my brother," said Clark. "I can't even explain it. I clicked with him after I got drafted. That was a guy that I talked to every day, no matter what. If I had a question about anything, he was always there.
"He told me 'Hit me up, hit me up whenever.' Those guys were right there by my side. I got through the fire. I had to step up, I had to help the team win.
"Those guys - Leighton communicated with me on the field, [Jayron Kearse] communicating, everybody in general. Those guys told me, 'Come on, just fly around, fly around and make plays.' That just speaks to the resiliency of this team."
But what thoughts and/or anxieties flashed through Clark's mind when Barr went down?
It turns out the 22-year-old wasn't as nervous as you'd think. Then again, it's not as if he's unaccustomed to the big stage or the preparation required to perform on it.
"I just stayed ready [because] I knew I would be on special teams - I knew that for sure," said Clark. "I was standing beside [assistant defensive line coach Leon Lett] and I heard [senior defensive assistant George Edwards screaming, 'Damone! Damone!'
"I walked over there to him and he's like, 'Go! Let's go! Barr went down! Go!'
"I just wanna thank George, too. He prepared me for this moment, too. At practice, he stays on me just like he stays on Leighton and the rest of the linebackers. I'm really appreciative of that because … from the first practice he was on me like I was getting ready to play [that week]."
As evidence to this point, in Clark's very first practice for the Cowboys, Edwards was overheard yelling praise and challenges at the rookie during individual drills - the same passion and determination in which he coached up Parsons, Vander Esch and the other linebackers.
Edwards was handling Clark like an NFL starter.
"This is hands-down the top-tier organization in all of sports," Clark added. "The family we have here - the brotherhood. Everybody is pulling on the same side of the rope. Nobody is trying to divide each other and this goes to the resiliency of this team."
There were times when, admittedly, showed reasonable signs of being a rookie who, again, also didn't have a training camp or reps in August like the other impact rookies have had. But film doesn't show Clark being the culprit of any big play and, contrarily, he was nearly credited with his first sack of his career after getting hands on Fields before the QB recovered and was ultimately sacked by DeMarcus Lawrence.
But, importantly, how does he grade himself on his first outing for Dallas?
"I'm not gonna lie to you, I feel like I started off slow," said Clark. "I'll go back and watch the tape to get better but I kept fighting. But, really, after I made my first tackle I was like, 'Alright, I'm good now.' That's the feeling I had. I remember the first time I got up and I was like, 'OK, I'm good now. I feel like myself.'
"A lot of people ask me all the time if I worry about my neck and, I'm gonna be honest with you, I don't worry about. When you worry about it that's when something happens, and that's when you hurt yourself. And to see Leighton playing at the level he's playing at, too? I know that the sky is the limit for me."
Does that mean the LSU version of himself will show itself before the 2022 season is in the books to go along with Parsons, Vander Esch and possibly a healthy Barr?
"I"m just gonna take it one day at a time - go back and watch the film - but I'm definitely pushing to be the 'LSU Damone' or better," he said.
That sound you hear is Dan Quinn smiling behind the large curtain, and opposing offenses clicking their heels with the hopes of returning home to their safe space.