Recruiting Profile: Chris Clifton
by Neal Williams
TSL Extra, Issue #8

Youíll see it periodically when a school sends out its list of football recruits.

Where the position should be, it says ATH.

It doesnít happen often. In a league like the Big East Conference, perhaps six of the 150 or so recruits will be designated as ATH.

Obviously, ATH is an abbreviation for athlete.

What it really means is, "We have no idea where this guy is going to play, but we like him so much that we decided to take him and figure that out later."

A year ago, it looked as if Chris Clifton of Deep Creek High in Chesapeake, Va., would carry the ATH tag with him. When he was recruited, that was the thinking. When he committed to Virginia Tech before his senior season at Deep Creek, that was the thinking. Though heíd played mostly quarterback as a junior, the Hokies originally thought theyíd find a place for Clifton at wide receiver. Or maybe running back. Or maybe somewhere on defense. Somewhere, for sure.

After all, Clifton was an ATH.

Something happened, however, during Cliftonís senior year to change everyoneís mind.

Clifton blossomed as a quarterback. Sure, heís still an ATH. But heís a quarterback first and foremost, and thatís where heíll get his first look when the Hokiesí freshmen report Aug. 6. It may turn out that he eventually plays somewhere else.

Or it might not.

Clifton is one of three freshmen quarterbacks coming to camp, where theyíll join holdovers Grant Noel and Jason Davis in the battle to replace Michael Vick. Now an Atlanta Falcon, Vick gave up his final two years of eligibility at Tech. It turned out to be a great move for him, even though it left the quarterback slot at his old school a tad fuzzy.

The other freshmen come in with more impressive resumes from a quarterbackís perspective. Randall, from Bruton High in Williamsburg, became the first player from Virginia to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in a single season. He did it as a junior and again as a senior.

Clifton comes in more of a work in progress but with perhaps more of an upside when that work is complete.

"Iím a much better quarterback than I was as a junior," Clifton said. "I was stronger. I could throw the ball a lot better than I could my junior year. In my junior year, it probably took just one guy to take me down. My senior year, it took three.

"It was a combination of learning the game and getting stronger."

Clifton led Deep Creek to the Virginia Group AAA Division 6 championship game as a senior. He had 192 passing yards and three touchdowns in one playoff game. For the season, he threw for more than 1,100 yards. Deep Creek was 23-2 with him at quarterback over two years, and Clifton earned All-Southeastern District honors both years.

But the second year was definitely bigger than the first.

"Mechanically, he wasnít real good before," said Deep Creek coach David Cox, a former punter at Tech. "He got better as he got older.

"I put him in as receiver for one play this year and he caught a pass for about 40 yards. I think initially everybody was looking long term and seeing him as an offensive player. When I sent the film to them from this year, they saw that this kid came a long way real quick. He just has so much ability. He can run the option, he can drop back, he has a strong arm. He can throw on a five-step drop, on a seven-step drop. His release needs some work for the quick game. Thatís something that can be developed."

Clifton comes by the ATH reputation honestly.

He is an athlete.

In fact, plenty of places still look at him as an athlete first and quarterback second. He made Prep Starís all-Atlantic region as an athlete, not as a quarterback.

Clifton doesnít find those designations to be a degradation of his ability under center.

"I take it as a compliment," he said.

Heís been clocked at 4.5 seconds for the 40-yard dash. Thatís not Vick quick, but itís not shabby.

Perhaps the best indication of his overall athleticism comes on the track. As a junior, he was third in the state meet with a long jump of 23 feet, 8 inches. As a senior, he added an inch and a half and moved up to second. His prep teammate and fellow Hokie recruit, defensive back DeAngelo Hall, was third.

"If you have an athletic quarterback who can run the option, youíre setting yourself up pretty good," Cox said.

Hall has seen all sides of his athletic buddy. Heís defended against his passes, covered him as a receiver and tried to tackle him when he runs.

"We were in middle school together and he was a running back like me," Hall said. "We all saw he had the speed. Then we saw him throw and it was like, ĎOh gosh, he has to be a quarterback.í

"In practice this year, he broke me down a couple of times. I donít like to give people their dues, but he done it to me. We went to a camp and he played some quarterback and wide receiver. I was dominating everybody and he stepped up and gave me a run for my money. He can play anything if you ask me."

Hall said Clifton was indeed improved as a senior quarterback.

"I think it was more confidence," Hall said. "He has the ability now to come off the first option at receiver and go to the next and then the next."

In terms of confidence, Clifton doesnít lag behind anybody. Heís different from his fellow freshman signal callers in that heís much more quiet. Randall is very talkative and Hunt isnít far behind. Clifton is polite and well-spoken. He just doesnít say much.

"He keeps to himself a lot," Hall said. "Youíre going to have to beat it out of him for him to tell you heís all this and all that. Youíll never hear him talk about himself."

Clifton says he figured on redshirting this year when he first decided to attend Tech. As a quarterback, heíd be behind Vick. At another position, heíd need time to learn.

Then Vick left and everything changed. Clifton says heís going to go in and "fight" for the starting job. "Iím not about to say itís mine but I am going to fight for it," he said.

Heís not familiar with the competition (he didnít attend the spring game). Hall, too, is unfamiliar with all the competition and admits he has a bias. But he thinks Clifton has an excellent shot.

"He can run and throw," Hall said. "Iím not taking anything away from Bryan Randall, but I do think Chris is a little different. (Randall) hasnít shown me he can lay it out to Andre Davis on the fly at 50 yards. Iíve seen that out of Chris."

Clifton said heís going in with an open mind. If it works out at quarterback, terrific. If not, heíll accept a change.

"I just want to play," he said.

Cox, his prep coach, said he couldnít say if Clifton could get ready in time to play as a true freshman. Itís been 15 years since he was at Tech and things have changed. Tech is playing at a higher level.

But he doesnít have any doubt about Cliftonís overall ability and capacity to learn.

"You get him in there with a guy like (offensive coordinator) Rickey Bustle, who knows what heís doing and can develop them, Chris can go as far as he wants," Cox said.

"A lot of people wanted in on Chris late, after the playoffs. Tech was in on him early, was the first to make an offer. Heís one of those kids who just needs to make up his mind what he wants to do and he can do it. If he wants to be mediocre, he can be mediocre. If he wants to be good, he can be good.

"And if he wants to be great, he can be great. He as much ability as anyone."

 

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