OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Chuck Clark has made a career out of making the smallest of details have the biggest impact.
A starting safety since Week 6, Clark has had a quiet influence on the defense, both in his personality and how he’s allowed the unit to thrive through the team’s 12-game win streak.
But those roots can be traced to Blacksburg, Va., where Clark starred at Virginia Tech from 2013-2016. He played games in four seasons and was a leader that coaches and players could rely on to put people in the right place and settle things down.
Under Hokies coach Justin Fuente in 2016, Clark was a similar person to what he is now: quiet, unassuming and intelligent. And just like what he’s done in Baltimore, he never wavered in the face of adversity. Even if he doesn’t say much, Clark is someone that’s always had a calming effect on the people that interact with him.
“Our Sunday practice, win or lose, we do a special teams drill first thing after stretching, every single day,” Fuente said. “(Every day), he gave me a little pat on the back like, ‘We’re going to go get it this week.’ And that was a really small thing, and it was really big. Just knowing you’ve got a player, whatever happened the day before, he’s ready to go attack the next week, that was really special.”
Clark, a three-star safety from Suffolk, Va. in the southern part of the state, only had two scholarship offers coming out of high school: Virginia and Virginia Tech. He chose the Hokies.
In Blacksburg, he grew exponentially off the field under former defensive coordinator Bud Foster and defensive backs coach Torrian Gray. That’s where Clark felt he had his best chance to get a leg up.
“The DB’s that I was with in college, we had a bunch of five-stars, four-stars, I was coming in as a three-star and just trying to learn the defense,” Clark said. “Our DB coach, he made us learn all the positions. He made us learn corner, dime linebacker and safety. I think that’s just carried over to the NFL.”
Clark, who took the time to learn every position on the defense, has played just about every position too.
At Virginia Tech, he played safety, cornerback, nickel corner and occasionally slid into the box as a linebacker. He also handled the majority of the checks for Foster’s defense, not an easy task for someone as demanding and intellectual as Foster is.
“He was a Virginia Tech kinda guy, meaning a guy that would be a team-first player, his ego was not that big, that he would be a special teams guy as well as play for you on defense,” Foster said. “Just like he’s done with the Ravens. He’s already played several roles (in Baltimore), that’s kind of what he did here.”
Clark set things in motion for the Hokies’ defense and was known as the lead communicator on the defense, one that was routinely one of the best in the ACC.
But while Clark stood out with his play on the field, the opposite was true away from the field.
One of the Hokies’ most vocal players during games and practices was one of the quietest when not in uniform. That’s one of the first things Fuente, who took over the Virginia Tech program in 2016, noticed right away.
“Part of the reason he’s not talking all the time off the field is because he’s listening to what other people are saying,” Fuente said. “It’s a little bit unique that you have a guy that’s a great football communicator that’s a quiet guy off the field, but in my opinion, it’s because he’s a very good listener.”
Clark helped lead the Hokies to the 2016 ACC Championship Game, where they lost to the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers in Fuente’s first season after taking over for legendary coach Frank Beamer.
Even today, Virginia Tech coaches will jump at the opportunity to talk about Clark’s play on the field, but also what kind of person he was away from the field.
“He was a guy I could depend on and trust as much as anybody I’ve had in my 25 years as a coordinator,” said Foster, who recently retired.
Clark ended up a sixth-round pick of the Ravens in 2017 and played special teams for the majority of his first two years as a pro before 2019, his third as a Raven.
Then, in Week 5 in Pittsburgh, safety Tony Jefferson suffered a knee injury and was lost for the season. Clark, who’d only played 52 combined snaps in the first four games, jumped into the lineup. The following week was the first in a stretch where Clark played every snap on defense.
Since his start against the Bengals in Week 6, he’s missed one defensive snap all season.
When he entered the lineup against the Steelers, the Ravens were 2-2 with a host of questions on the defensive side of the ball. Communication issues plagued the Ravens defensively and they allowed 300-plus passing yards in three of the first four games.
Since then, no team has passed for more than 268 yards and the defense rose to sixth in the NFL in pass defense.
“As far as the communicator, as far as the checks, as far as just the football smarts, he has become that (Eric) Weddle, that Magic Johnson of the defense of getting people lined up and setting them up to make plays, as well,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale said. “He's had a tremendous year, and I'm really happy for him.”
Clark has played all over the field, too, sometimes moving down into the box in a sub-package to play a dime-linebacker role. He’s got an attribute that allows him to thrive there, too.
“I would definitely say being faster than linemen getting to the spot,” Clark said in early December with a grin.
Teammates have raved about Clark’s intelligence and football IQ since he arrived in the lineup, something old lessons were able to help him out with.
“When I first got here, I was learning the defense,” Clark said. “That’s what I would do, I would learn all the positions on one play and then I would go to the next play.”
Clark only has one interception this season and just two in his career. He isn’t a ball-hawking safety and is overshadowed by names like Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Earl Thomas, but his impact on the secondary can’t be overstated this season.
His quiet demeanor and persona off the field are translatable to his play on the field. And just like at Virginia Tech, he’s thrived in a role that’s one of the most under-appreciated on the team.
“There’s people that come through your program that you have touch with as a football coach that you’re supposed to influence in a positive way,” Fuente said. “And every now and again, there’s somebody that comes through your program that influences you as a coach in a positive way. That’s Chuck Clark.”
Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.
MORE RAVENS NEWS: