Cornerback Kei’Trel Clark setting himself up for long Cardinals career
Oct 11, 2023, 3:35 PM
TEMPE — Cardinals cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith saw the potential in Kei’Trel Clark before Arizona nabbed the Louisville alum in the sixth round of the 2023 NFL Draft.
He just could never get his hands on him, though it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
Smith first attempted to recruit Clark during the coach’s two-year stint at Elon University from 2017-18.
Clark said no.
In 2019, Smith gave it another shot, this time as James Madison’s safeties coach and pro recruit liaison.
Once again, Clark turned him down.
Smith didn’t let the first two rejections keep him down, though, trying to land Clark once more during his time at Virginia Tech (2020-21).
Regardless of the change in institutions for Smith, the answer remained the same for Clark: A resounding no.
But fast forward to 2023, and Smith finally got his chance to work with Clark in the pros.
Their time together have paid off so far. The rookie has started all but one game this season and has appeared in 87% of Arizona’s available defensive snaps.
For some sixth-round picks, that kind of workload just isn’t fathomable right from the jump. That hasn’t been the case for Clark.
Smith isn’t the least bit shocked by the defensive back’s development.
“I’m not surprised at all that Kei’Trel’s been able to take it in and grow,” Smith said Friday. “It was kind of fate that I ended up coaching him now in the NFL.
“But for me knowing him for that amount of time and knowing what kind of guy he is and the character he has, I’m not surprised by the growth and development and that he’s in the spot that he’s in.”
So far this season, Clark and the rest of the Cardinals secondary have gone up against a murderer’s row of receiving threats that include:
– CeeDee Lamb
– Christian McCaffrey
– Ja’Marr Chase
– Tony Pollard
– Darren Waller
– Terry McLaurin
Clark has maintained the right mindset head coach Jonathan Gannon and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis are looking for in their cornerbacks long term.
Even in his worst showing so far this season, allowing 114 yards on nine catches in a win over the Dallas Cowboys, per Pro Football Focus, Clark’s mentality never wavered.
“He’s psychologically prepped for being a corner in the NFL,” Gannon said following the team’s win over the Dallas Cowboys. “The ball’s going to come to you. And when they make plays, because they’re going to make plays, you’ve got to come back, fight and battle.”
That mindset wasn’t fostered overnight, either.
“Since I was a little kid, I’ve always had the will to battle adversity and to fight through any situation and be resilient,” Clark said last Thursday. “That’s what you got to do, especially at the position that I play.
“We’re in the NFL. Sometimes they might make a play on me, sometimes I might get hurdled on a play because I dove. But at the end of the day, you just got to get up and say, ‘Next-play-mentality and how am I going to attack it and the best I can be in my role.'”
Now, he’ll need to lean on his mental makeup as he works to regain his place as a near-every-down contributor.
For the first time this season, Clark didn’t log a start in Arizona’s 34-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. After seeing at least 97% of defensive snaps across the first four games, just 48% came his way in Week 5. He also put up more special teams snaps (17) on Sunday than he had in the past four contests combined (one).
In Clark’s place was veteran option Antonio Hamilton, who could be in line for a larger role moving forward.
How the rookie responds to the Week 5 demotion at practice and in the meeting room could go a long way in curbing that trend against a tough receiving matchup in Los Angeles Rams pass catchers Cooper Kupp and rookie standout Puka Nacua.
“He’s just got to practice every day and keep improving,” Gannon said Monday when asked about his assessment of Clark. “It’s things that he needs to improve and he’ll be a player for us for a long time.”
“I feel really good about both Ham, Kei’Trel, any of those guys going out there and playing at a high level,” Rallis added. “If we feel guys can help us win, you really want the more guys playing, because then, you’re fresher. Guys when they do have to go into the lineup, they’ve played. Week to week we talk about how roles can change and that’s what we decided for last week.”
Luckily for Clark, he’s got a fellow rookie voice in the secondary to bounce things off of in Garrett Williams.
Despite Williams’ time on the non-football injury list this season — he was designated to return last week — the duo have remained in lockstep with one another, constantly building the other one up and diving into the tape from practice and game days.
“That’s my boy right there. I’m proud to have him back on the field,” Clark said of Williams. “He’s been working hard ever since we stepped in the door grinding. I’m proud of my boy. He’s been grinding.”
That kind of connection already being solidified could go a long way for a Cardinals cornerbacks room needing a new wave of talent to take hold of the reins and maintain it.