Steven Clark stepped to the podium and flashed a quick smile. It was late February, the first day of the NFL combine in Indianapolis, and Clark — a Kansas City native and one of the nation’s top punters — was easygoing and excited.
It wouldn’t be completely accurate to simply say he was happy to be there. The combine is basically a job interview, after all, and Clark certainly has aspirations of being a longtime pro.
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But put it this way; when asked if he thought this was all possible back during his days as a defensive end and tight end for the Park Hill Trojans, Clark’s earnest response revealed the whole story.
“No, no, not at all,” Clark said. “It’s definitely something, I mean … God had a plan for me and I’m very thankful for it.”
Indeed, in many ways, Clark was just grateful for that scholarship to Auburn, which he earned after an impressive performance at a national punting camp.
“I thought I would be playing two positions and punting in college at a little D-II school or something like that,” Clark said. “It just worked out where I got to go to Auburn and have a great career. I’ve loved every minute of it so far, but I couldn’t have done it without where I came from.”
Teams evaluate punters differently, of course, but at least one draft analyst — ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. — lists Clark as the best punter in the draft.
“I think Clark is a late rounder,” Kiper said. “If you’re looking for a punter, he’s the number one punter if you want a guy as a sixth or seventh-round pick or priority free agent.”
Clark’s resume is impressive. A three-time semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best punter, in 2013 Clark averaged 42.6 yards per punt, including 26 punts inside the 20-yard line. He caught scouts’ eyes with his knack for hang time, too — last season, teams only returned five of his 56 punts.
Clark also has a few tricks up his sleeve to get the job done, not that he necessarily needs them. This year, he sometimes mixed in an Aussie punt, which he learned from Saints punter Thomas Morstead. The goal is to kick the ball in such a way that it travels end over end and bounces back toward the punter, which can be a weapon when trying to pin teams deep inside their own territory.
“It kind of surprised me how well it’s worked this whole season,” Clark said. “I had it the year before, but I had a lot of success to begin with doing my normal punts inside the 20 so it wasn’t ready yet. But this year, I felt it was ready and it helped us win some games.”
Now, Clark hopes he’ll have a chance to help some NFL teams do the same. He grew up a Chiefs fan, but with significant money tied up in Dustin Colquitt, chances are Clark has a better chance to land a job elsewhere.
“I don’t care where I go,” Clark said. I grew up a Kansas City fan, the Chiefs and stuff, just because it was 30 minutes away from my house. I always enjoyed watching them play on TV and stuff on Sunday. But outside of that, I really don’t care where I go. I just love to play.
Top five prospects for the Chiefs
1. Pat O’Donnell, 6-4, 220, Miami (Fla.)
Four-year starter who averaged 47.1 yards per punt with 11 punts inside the 20 in 2013. Allowed 16 returns on 53 punts. 79 kickoffs for an average of 63.1. 37 touchbacks. Is 23 years old. Transferred to Miami after spending four years at Cincinnati.
Good leg strength. Could be more accurate when directional punting. Had added value because he can kickoff. Needs to improve consistency but has experience punting in poor conditions during his time at Cincinnati.
2. Kirby Van Der Kamp, 6-4, 202, Iowa State
Four-year starter who averaged 41.6 yards per punt with 27 punts inside the 20 in 2013. Allowed 16 returns on 84 punts. Is 22 years old.
Is a left-footed punter, which will intrigue some coaches. Has good accuracy when directional punting. Has experience punting in windy conditions. Did not handle kickoffs in 2013.
3. Tom Hornsey, 6-3, 201, Memphis
Four-year starter who averaged 45.2 yards per punt with 29 punts inside the 20 in 2013. Is 25 years old. Allowed 20 punt returns in 62 attempts. Won the Ray Guy Award as a senior as the nation’s best punter.
Good leg strength but needs to be more consistent. Did not handle kickoffs in 2013.
4. Steven Clark, 6-5, 231, Auburn
Three-year starter who averaged 42.6 yards per punt with 26 punts inside the 20 in 2013. Allowed five returns in 56 punts.
Great size and good accuracy, leg strength get the job done. Good hang time, does not allow a bunch of returns. Did not handle kickoffs in 2013.
5. Cody Mandell, 6-2, 216, Alabama
Four-year starter who averaged 47.1 yards per punt with 15 punts inside the 20 in 2013. Allowed 13 returns on 40 punts. Two kickoffs for an average of 64.5. 1 touchback.
Has good leg strength, hang time and accuracy. After playing at Alabama, he has plenty of experience on the big stage. Must be more consistent.
*All rankings are a composite of NFL.com’s, ESPN.com’s and Draft Nasty’s rankings. Measurements and testing results are from the combine and pro days, according to the resources listed above.