Lincoln High School football coach Masaki Matsumoto knew Jaylen Clark would have a big senior season at the cornerback position on the Abes’ defense. But he probably wasn’t prepared to see Clark play on offense like he has.
Through five games, Clark has emerged as the No. 2 receiver on the team, hauling in 24 receptions for 330 yards and six touchdowns.
“He was behind Mykel (Campbell) last year, so he didn’t see a ton of time on offense,” Matsumoto said. “This year, we thought he’d really be a defensive guy but he’s equally as good on offense. He’s been huge for us on both sides.”
Clark’s surprising offensive production makes the 3-star recruit — who holds offers from Montana and Pac-12 Colorado — one of the top two-way players in the state. But ask Lincoln senior quarterback Caden Filer about Clark’s expanded role on offense, and he’s not at all surprised.
Filer and Clark have been close friends for about 10 years, when the pair met at Panther Lake Elementary School in Kent. At recess on the first day of school, a friendship began.
“We were the two best players on the basketball court,” Filer said. “So some competition started and we became friends in like a day. It was pretty instant.”
That friendship has paid dividends with their connection on the field this season. Filer and Clark have an understanding that often doesn’t even need to be verbalized.
“We just know, we click,” Clark said. “Some quarterbacks and receivers will have hand signals with each other. Sometimes, we just have to look at each other and we know what to do.”
Filer recalls a play during Lincoln’s season-opening 24-14 road loss to 4A power Camas, when Filer connected with Clark for a 70-yard touchdown.
“We looked at each other and saw the DB about to bail,” he said. “I threw a back-shoulder pass behind him on purpose. He peeked, caught the back shoulder and just turned up and scored. It’s just that quick with us. We give each other a little nod and we know what’s going to happen.”
Clark credits his offensive production to not only his rapport with his quarterback and longtime friend but also to the work he put in over the offseason.
“On the offensive side, crisping out my routes,” Clark said. “It’s high school football, so there’s some stuff you can get away with, but at the next level, everything has to be crisp. So crisping up my routes and always catching the ball.”
Clark spent his first two years at Kent Meridian High School before transferring to Lincoln in time for his junior year. But before school started, he was on the cusp of academic eligibility.
“He came in with like a 2.1 GPA,” Matsumoto said. “Academically, he’s getting A’s and B’s now. So just his turnaround. Just what he’s doing on the field, trying to step up as a leader. His story in terms of being able to turn stuff around and get things going, even if he didn’t start off great.”
Clark, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound player with a long wingspan, has always had the talent. But he knew if he wanted to play college football, he needed to progress in the classroom.
“Knowing that really, if you don’t have your grades right, you won’t be able to play in college, no matter who you are,” Clark said.
Matsumoto and the Lincoln coach staff have helped hold Clark accountable. But maybe even more importantly, Filer has, also.
“He’d always check up on me,” Clark said. “It’d be like 10 at night and he’d tell me to screenshot my grades and send them to him. That’s the kind of people you want to be around.”
The offensive production has been invaluable to the Abes this season, who are ranked No. 4 in this week’s Associated Press football poll.
“It’s great,” Matsumoto said. “We have a few (two-way players) like that with Julien Simon, Abner Sio and Jeddiah Hayes. They bring huge value on both sides. Because we don’t have the biggest team, that really helps.”
While the offensive production has helped bolster the Lincoln offense, Clark’s best position is likely still on the defensive side of the ball, which is where he’s being recruited. Clark leads the team with three interceptions through five games, including a pick-six in last week’s 48-0 win against Spanaway Lake. Simply put, he’s a lockdown corner.
“He’s long,” Matsumoto said. “He’s aggressive; he can play press, can play off. Just a competitor, he’ll go for balls. He has great instincts. On the pick-six last week, he saw an out and just jumped it. Mentally and physically, he’s just gifted in terms of that position.”
Filer knows how good Clark is at the corner position. During practice, he’ll sometimes avoid going to Clark’s side of the field.
“I know my receiver is running a go-route and I know (Clark) is going to pick it if I throw it,” Filer said. “So when I see teams try to test him during the game, I just think, ‘Man, these guys are stupid.’ There are certain points when you just don’t want to test him.”
Like when Clark is especially juiced up and is barking at an opposing receiver.
“I’ll just hear from the sideline, ‘OH YEAH, OH YEAH!’ and I see the receiver walking back to the huddle with his head down,” Filer said. “When I hear that, ‘Oh yeah’ and he’s clapping, that’s when I know it’s over. That’s when he’s going to make a big play.”
For a Lincoln team that wants to make a run to the Class 3A state title game, Clark will be an integral part of any postseason run.
“I just have to keep balling and being a great leader,” Clark said. “And keep winning. Stay tuned because we’re coming.”