I had Louisville’s Kei’Trel Clark, a two time Second Team All-ACC cornerback, who declared after his junior season this past fall, as a player to watch at the position ahead of the East-West Shrine Bowl Practice Week. After two days of practice with the East squad, I can confirm that the Louisville product has not disappointed, generating multiple splash plays and showcasing the physicality and versatility that made him a household name in the ACC.
With the ability to align both in the slot and at the boundary corner position, Clark has shown the coveted versatility that is desired in the modern, sub-package heavy NFL landscape. In fact, after playing solely on the boundary in his first two seasons at Louisville, gaining All-ACC honors in both years, Clark and his Cardinals’ coaching staff felt that he was ready to take on the challenge of becoming more versatile in his usage, leading to him gaining extensive work as a slot defender for the first time in his collegiate career.
When I asked Kei’Trel Clark about his biggest strengths as a player he cited his versatility, noting that while it was a challenge to learn a near position and move into the slot at times, it ultimately helped his value in transitioning to the next level.
“Yes, I feel like that’s the thing that I had that was a challenge for me this year, you know, just playing in the slot,” Clark said. “I didn’t really play in the slot my first three years of college, so moving to the slot show some versatility and I feel like it most definitely is some strengths of my game. Like I tell scouts that I may meet with all the time, they’re getting two corners for the price of one. So, most definitely.”
Many of the best cornerbacks in the modern NFL, including Jalen Ramsey, Stephon Gilmore, Marlon Humphrey, and even Steelers free-agent Cam Sutton have followed a similar model in playing the boundary on early downs and moving into the slot in sub-packages. Particularly for a player of smaller stature, weighing in at 5’10” 176 pounds, Clark’s decision to master the Nickel position ahead of the NFL draft should expedite his ability to see the field at the next level. I should note however, regardless of size, Clark may be the single most physical defensive back in Vegas through two practices, consistently imposing his will on receivers at the catch point and blowing up screens in team sessions.
Equally important in his transition to the NFL level, Clark played in variety of coverage schemes at Louisville, citing his work in spot drop zones, pattern match zones, and traditional man coverage, gaining experience in a variety of coverages from both the boundary and slot corner positions.
“The main two or three coverages we played, we played a lot of we four under, three deep, cover three,” Clark said. ”Also we ran some middle field open, some cover two. And most definitely our coach was trusting me and our DBs and he wanted to throw us in some cover one man situations with post high safety. And then of course, sometimes it just depends on who we’re playing, we’ll run some quarters, you know, run some cover six and different things like that just based on the game plan.”
Plenty of defensive backs exit college with experience playing exclusively in either a single high (middle of the field closed) scheme or a two high (middle of the field open) scheme. Thus, for Kei’Trel to have three years of starting experience in a scheme that was exotic and varied in its coverage assignments serves as a big plus.
Likewise, in gaining experience playing from within the slot, Kei’Trel gained the ability to learn all of the coverage assignments from both positions, giving him a better foundational understanding of defensive schematics. This past season, he was also forced to field gap responsibilities in the run game, even gaining some snaps as a blitzer, helping him become a more well-rounded and impactful player. He was able to score a pair of defensive touchdowns this past season, one working from the slot, and another baiting a comeback on the boundary.
In terms of where he feels his best role or scheme fit is at the next level, Clark believes that his unique versatility allows him to fill essentially any role or assignment asked of him by a defensive coordinator. With the experience that he gained at Louisville, Clark believes that he is more than capable to align in a variety of positions and execute any assignment he is given at a high level. Importantly, he could serve as a depth piece both in the slot and on the boundary immediately, with the maniacal attitude and effort to impact the game on special teams as well.
“Like you said earlier, I see my strength as being versatile,” Clark said. “I feel like if a team desires me to go inside and play nickel, I can do that. If a team desires me to play boundary corner, I can also do that. I can do both. So, wherever they need me at, I’m willing to play on the field, whether that’s offense, defense, special teams, wherever I can get in to help the team improve.”
It’s one thing to preach versatility, it’s another to walk the walk. In Day 2 of the East Squad’s practice sessions, Clark had pass breakups in WR/DB 1v1s playing both in the slot and on the boundary. Likewise, he showcased the physical mentality that he developed playing in the box this past season, blowing up multiple screen passes, and providing sound run fits and backside pursuit off the edge.
Clark has two traits that should endear him to Teryl Austin, Mike Tomlin, and the rest of the Steelers secondary: versatility and a high football IQ. If Pittsburgh is able to retain cornerback Cameron Sutton and neglects the quarterback position early in the draft, Clark could provide Pittsburgh with a great depth piece, elevating the unit in sub-packages and filling in anywhere in the secondary. He reminds me a bit of former Baltimore Ravens defensive back Tavon Young, and I strongly believe he will easily assimilate into any system that he winds up in on draft night.