It was one of the lowest moments of his career on the Michigan football team, but Jeremy Clark was far from alone.
When the fifth-year senior cornerback tore his anterior cruciate ligament while part of a kickoff return in the fourth quarter Saturday against Penn State, most of the Wolverines’ sideline walked out to midfield and gathered around Clark as he was helped onto the cart that took him to the locker room.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “It was that way in the locker room as well. We came together as a team after the game in the locker room, and half the team went into the training room to see Jeremy. He’s a highly respected person on our team.”
Even with All-American senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis finally returning to action last week, Clark is no small loss for the Wolverines. Before this weekend, Pro Football Focus College Football had rated him as the second-best cornerback in the Big Ten, behind only his teammate, senior cornerback Channing Stribling.
Monday, when Harbaugh officially confirmed the season-ending injury, most of Michigan’s players still had Clark on their minds. Redshirt junior fullback Khalid Hill was part of the group to come out and comfort Clark at midfield. Having torn his own ACL in 2014, Hill was one of the few players who could actually understand what his teammate was feeling.
“To be in a game, in your fifth year, that’s not how you want to go out,” Hill said. “I wanted to shed a tear with him (when) he was on the field. I went to him, grabbed him, told him, ‘Everything’s gonna be OK.’ If he needed me, I’d be there for him.”
Clark played safety before Harbaugh entered the fold at the end of 2014, and according to fifth-year senior offensive lineman Ben Braden, seeing the work he put in to earn a job as starting corner made it all the more difficult to see him go down.
As Harbaugh mentioned, the support for Clark continued in the locker room, where redshirt sophomore defensive end Chase Winovich was just one of many players to share a moment with him. Winovich wouldn’t disclose what exactly was said, but Monday, he reflected on just how cruel football can be.
“I remember in camp, one of our managers actually dislocated his shoulder,” Winovich said. “He was in a sling, and he wasn’t even on the football field. It’s crazy to think that nobody’s safe. … It’s a shame that it happened to Jeremy the way it did. I’m sure he’s gonna come back from it stronger than ever, like a slingshot, but it’s heartbreaking to see that happen to one of my teammates.”
Harbaugh said Michigan will try to pursue a medical redshirt to get Clark a sixth year of eligiblity. The NCAA typically will grant a medical hardship waiver to players who are injured in the first half of the season and have played under 30 percent of the year, but there is no guarantee. In the meantime, the Wolverines will have to scramble quickly to replace Clark for this season.
Lewis and Stribling are extremely capable of holding down the secondary as starting corners, but the picture behind them is less clear. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Brandon Watson will have to be a factor, especially after seeing an increase in playing time this season due to Lewis’ injury. And Harbaugh anticipates that a pair of freshman corners will need to be thrown into the fire as well.
“Both David Long (and) Lavert Hill are gonna step to the fore now,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve been practicing and playing a little bit, and now they’ll be called on.”