OXNARD, Calif. — There are plenty of headlines to follow along with at Dallas Cowboys training camp in 2023, and if you can peel your IQ away from the non-story that is trash talking, allow me to direct your attention to the progress of Damone Clark as the next emerging star on a defense that features one at every position.
Clark is entering his second season in the NFL, yes, but while that's technically true, in reality it isn't — at least not entirely.
"I'm thankful and grateful that I got the opportunity to play last year," said Clark following the Cowboys' third padded practice on Thursday. "They allowed me to go out there [in 2022] — not having an offseason and the [freedom] to make mistakes. Now it's about learning from the mistakes I made last year and go out there and hit some people."
A former First-Team All-SEC talent for LSU in 2021, it was discovered by the (guess who?) Cowboys' medical staff, ahead of the 2022 draft, Clark had a condition that ultimately led him to undergo spinal fusion surgery in his neck in March of that same year.
It would cost him draft status, falling to the fifth-round where Dallas (fate?) grabbed him, but his story was just beginning, and it's all a testament to both the medical staff's abilities as well as Clark's determination and work ethic.
After having not been able to participate in a single offseason program rep — neither rookie minicamp, OTAs, mandatory minicamp nor training camp/preseason — most believed the 2022 season would be redshirt year for the former Tiger.
Turns out, it wasn't.
He'd make his NFL debut on Oct. 30, against the Chicago Bears, where he'd finish with five combined tackles (t-2nd most in that contest) in a 49-29 thrashing that also saw him chase down Justin Fields in the open field at full stride that was clocked at 22.19 mph — per Next Gen Stats — the fastest time ever recorded for a linebacker in the history of NGS (also besting Micah Parsons' top mark of 20.41 mph).
Again, this was all done in his NFL debut wherein he had no offseason to physically ramp up, so having a full offseason of training, conditioning and on-field reps in Dan Quinn's system have proven invaluable thus far, along with the ongoing tutelage of former All-Pro linebacker Leighton Vander Esch; who now returns on a two-year deal versus departing in 2022 free agency.
"I think this is going to be a huge [year] for Damone," said Vander Esch, not long before defending his title at the 10th annual Reliant Home Run Derby in the spring. "We've been training pretty much the whole offseason before we reported [to the facility] together."
Objectively speaking, all things considered, every part of Clark's game should leap in Year 2.
"Strength-wise, intelligence-wise, he's just going to get that much better; and settle into his shoes and really make a name for himself," LVE said. "I think he's going to make tremendous strides."
For his part, Clark readily and enthusiastically admits the game has slowed down for him.
"Most definitely," he said. " … Just going out there and having fun. [The game has] slowed down a ton. Just going out there and trusting my keys, trusting the guys around me, trusting myself and just going out there and playing.
"It's the same game I've been playing since I was five years old. … It feels good. Last year this time, I was on the sideline rehabbing. It feels good to be back out here.
"Obviously, it's a lot of things we have to correct and get better at, but that's what camp [is] for."
The bond between Clark and Vander Esch has become a brotherhood, and it's truly helping the former prepare himself to be the best version of himself, and that should make opposing offenses nervous; considering it's a guy who racked up 135 combined tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 2021 — with three pass break ups and an interception as well.
"Just being out there and communicating with him, helping him along and showing him the way because, obviously, you can make a jump every single year," said Vander Esch. "It's not just a big first to second year jump. You've got to make a jump every single year. I'll be there every step of the way to help him along and enjoy all of the moments with him.
"I think we're seeing the beginning of an outstanding career."
All signs point to that being true.