POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 24, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 7:59 p.m. HST, Aug 28, 2013
FIFTH IN EIGHT-PART SERIES
It's not that Ben Clarke didn't appreciate being named Hawaii's offensive player of the year at the team banquet last December.
But it's a distinction the sophomore center would gladly relinquish this season.
"It was cool, I was really excited and happy the coaching staff gave that to me," Clarke said. "But I realize that it needs to be going to a quarterback or a running back because that means the O-line is doing its job and we're getting yards and scoring touchdowns. I'd like to see someone else get it this year."
As the hub of the Rainbow Warriors' offensive line, Clarke will play a prominent role in the unit's mission to push others into the spotlight.
In his first season as a center, Clarke provided a stable presence in the middle of a UH line that spent much of the season in flux as the Warriors went through seven starting combinations in 12 games.
His reliability earned him an approving nod from Mountain West Conference coaches as an honorable mention all-conference pick, and he's the only returnee on the UH offense to start every game last season.
"He's one of two guys who probably have the most game experience, and in this game the more experience you have the more valuable you are," UH offensive line coach Chris Naeole said. "You've seen things, you've played through things, you understand how the game is played. We're just expecting a lot of good things from him.
"That's the first guy touching the ball on every play. He's got to be sharp, he has to direct people, he has to be a little more vocal, but other than that he does all the right things."
Clarke said he didn't know what to expect around this time last year as he prepared for his collegiate debut at USC. Twelve starts later, he heads into UH's season-opening rematch with the Trojans as a veteran member of a line that includes four other returnees who started games last year in senior Mike Milovale and juniors Kody Afusia, Dave Lefotu and Sean Shigematsu.
"Last year I'd never even played in a college game — we we're going to play in the (Los Angeles) Coliseum and I didn't really know what was going on," Clarke said. "Now I have a little more confidence. I know more what to study and what film to watch."
Clarke can devote more attention to some of the finer aspects of playing center now that he's more comfortable performing one of the position's primary tasks.
Clarke played tackle at Chatfield High School in Littleton, Colo., but was asked to move to center when he enrolled at UH full-time in the spring of 2012 as a grayshirt.
The shift required adding snapping to his skill set, which in turn took countless repetitions before becoming committed to muscle memory.
"Playing tackle in high school I had already made the calls for the O-line, so that came natural. The main thing was the snaps," Clarke said. "It's different to snap and step at the same time and get out of your stance.
"Starting that January I was snapping all the time when the quarterbacks were doing 7-on-7. I was snapping every day until spring ball."
He honed his technique with help from high school teammate Brenden Urban, who played center in their junior year at Chatfield, and Afusia. Urban had transferred to UH after a year at Adams State and is now Clarke's backup. Afusia, a contender at center prior to last season, is slated to line up next to Clarke at left guard this season.
The UH coaches graded Clarke at 87 percent for the season, best among the linemen, and a year of experience sends him to the line of scrimmage with a sharper focus on what's unfolding in front of him.
"I'm able to watch the safety rotations, the linebackers, see what's going on with the defense a little better," Clarke said.