Before Tuesday, when University of Miami offensive lineman Jakai Clark last faced the media, he reflected on the humidity in South Florida “making it hard to breathe’’ and his welcome-to-college moment when senior linebacker Zach McCloud “brought that wood” during practice and he realized, “Yeah, this isn’t high school anymore.’’
Clark is still 18 years old, still has that baby face, but the 6-2, 310-pound Loganville, Georgia, native is no longer a wide-eyed newcomer whose only pounding comes from teammates.
Only two games into 2019, Clark got his first start at right guard Sept. 7 at North Carolina.
“It was crazy,’’ Clark said Tuesday. “It was sold out. Came in, tried not to look at the crowd. Couldn’t really help myself. Going into your first road game, sold out, it makes you nervous. But when you get on that field, it’s just football.’’
Not only does Clark and 6-5, 285-pound left tackle Zion Nelson form one of the rare true-freshman duos that start along the line for a major college program, they’re getting better each game — FCS opponent Bethune-Cookman last Saturday notwithstanding.
“I thought the offensive line did a tremendous job,’’ said offensive coordinator Dan Enos, not one to throw around compliments unless they’re warranted. “The one pressure we did have was on the back. It wasn’t on the O-line. They did what they were supposed to do. The more they play the more continuity will be there, the more cohesiveness will be there.”
Enos laughed. “They’re playing against sometimes 22-year-old guys and they’re 18 or 19 years old,’’ he said. “So, it’s going to be a challenge for them. I thought those guys rose to the challenge Saturday.”
Clark got his second start last Saturday against Bethune-Cookman in a 63-0 rout. His third start for Miami (1-2, 0-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) will come at 4 p.m. Saturday against Central Michigan (2-1, 1-0 MId-American Conference) at Hard Rock Stadium.
On Tuesday, Clark elaborated on that first start against a Power 5 opponent, and how the line is developing. Jarren Williams was sacked 10 times in the opener against Florida, four times at North Carolina and stayed clean against the Wildcats. The Canes are ranked 60th nationally in rushing offense (174.3 yards a game) and 31st in passing offense (285.3).
“When you go against somebody that is a lot older than you, a lot of things you used to do don’t really work as much,’’ Clark said, citing “definitely strength [and] a lot more experience’’ as major differences. “But if you just do your same technique as if it’s practice, everything is going to work out fine.’’
Clark, a former three-star recruit who played center in high school, is expected to be the future UM center. But for now he’s flanked by redshirt sophomore center Corey Gaynor and sophomore right tackle DJ Scaife, with junior Navaughn Donaldson at left guard.
“The real story is you can’t say Jakai Clark without saying Zion Nelson,’’ said Don Bailey Jr., who snapped to heralded quarterback Jim Kelly, played his last UM season in 1982 and is a longtime member of UM football’s radio broadcast team. “What’s going on there is unbelievable. Both of those guys are extremely talented, but the improvement they’ve made from Week 1 to Week 3 is off the charts. Butch Barry, their offensive line coach, deserves a ton of credit.
“No matter how this turns out, these two guys are going to be cornerstones for this offensive line for the next three or four years.”
Clark said he and Nelson have gotten close, but they “try not to think about the future.’’
“We try to think about now,’’ Clark said. “Me and Zion are cool. We talk a lot. Us being true freshmen we kind of work together in terms of getting caught up on stuff. But having guys around us like Corey, having Scaife, having Navaughn, it makes it easier — guys that are experienced, guys that are smart, that know what they’re doing.”
Clark said home and away games each have their moments.
“When we’re on the field there’s not much crowd noise,’’ he said of Hard Rock. “That definitely helps a lot. Just when you score, seeing everybody in the stands... You see everybody getting excited and it kind of gives you that boost of energy.
“At away games, you score, you see everybody in the stands with their heads down throwing their arms up.”
As he walked away from reporters Tuesday, Clark was asked if he had gotten used to that humidity he spoke about early last month.
“I thought I had,’’ he said smiling, “until today.’’