Updated: Apr 28
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Today, we finish our BEST XI TIGERS OF 2021 countdown......
Which LSU Tiger will lead the way as LSU Odyssey's top Tiger of 2021?
Much like last fall's Top 10 Tigers of 2020 list, we were forced to analyze a season which will live on as a dangerous era for LSU, a scary year full of uncertainty and disappointment....
However, through it all, certain Tigers treated fans to individual brilliance at an elite level, showing out for the Tigers Community in our darkest, most desperate hours of need.
Who stepped up when LSU needed him most?
We reveal our #1 Tiger of 2021 RIGHT HERE....RIGHT NOW!
And we reach the top Tiger on our list, the #1 Tiger of 2021.....a recognition earned the hardest way.....on a path far less traveled, experiencing a brand of criticism, doubt & uncertainty few student-athletes will ever endure, finishing his four year LSU Odyssey by climbing the highest mountain.....
DAMONE CLARK (LB)
135 TACKLES (1st)
15 TFLs (1st)
5.5 SACKS (2nd)
3 PBUs (2nd)
2 FF (1st)
1 FR (2nd)
-Ranked #3 for Total Tackles (NCAA)
-Ranked #6 for Solo Tackles (NCAA)
-Ranked #1 for Solo Tackles (SEC)
-Ranked #1 for Total Tackles (SEC)
-Ranked 2nd in TFLs (SEC)
Damone Clark entered his fourth year as a Tiger carrying plenty of question marks, doubts & pressure upon his shoulders....
Arriving on campus in 2018 as a fresh faced Devin White disciple, playing a star role off the bench as LSU won a National Championship inside the Superdome (49 tackles and 3 sacks), Damone Clark was widely viewed as a slam dunk future 1st Rounder.
Then came his turbulent junior season:
2020 wasn't just a horrorshow year of embarrassing team defense or the most archaic coaching / 4-3 obsession from Bo Pelini and Ed Orgeron, it became an autumn in the abyss for some individual Tigers, most watching the "Aranda 3-4" they were recruited under suddenly turned on its head, traded for an easy to block, quick to dissect base 4-3 straight outta 2006.
More than any other Tiger, linebacker Damone Clark's game suffered due to Bo Pelini and Ed Orgeron's obsessions with unimaginative defensive formations, their "papyrus fronts" decimated with acres of space underneath or in behind...most of the time both.
Though his junior season was riddled with errors, it also exists as an invaluable trial by fire:
Newly christened as the next #18, 2020 was an unforgettable year of turmoil for LSU, both on and off the field; From inside that boiler room, Damone was pushed beyond his utmost limits, playing snap after snap for an injury / opt out-ravaged LSU defense.
Playing the most snaps of his career since high school, Clark's stamina was tested time after time, and while he made costly mistakes, he often produced touchdown-saving tackles after blown assignments from fellow teammates; Simply put, #18 was often left alone as the do-or-die scapegoat...pulling off thankless stops to a chorus of boos and criticism.....
On paper, Clark racked up a significant amount of tackles across his first year as a starter (63 in 9 games), still many doubts rained down upon him throughout LSU's 2020-21 off-season:
Ranging from Damone's ability in coverage, whether he had enough physical stamina, if he could read the game adequately, as well as questions over his tackling prowess, every facet of his game......every branch of his character became up for debate.
Some argued Damone was a "glorified edge rusher", others claimed he had to be a "3-4 OLB specialist" who only thrived in a "hybrid role attacking the backfield"; Then there were arguments that he shouldn't be allowed to start in 2021.....
During that off-season, even with Coach O or Blake Baker's constant coach-speak regarding Damone "being the leader of the team, captain of Daronte Jones' defense, or being a symbol of everything the #18 stands for", those assertions did little to erase lingering doubts about Clark....especially after LSU's repeat of 2020's defensive atrocities against UCLA in week 1.
Clark was the scapegoat, ruthlessly called out as many fans, media members and college football fans within Louisiana & across the country wondered why Damone's development stunted after 2019.
Suddenly, just as LSU's squad began to gel against a few in-state minnows, one defensive leader after another went down within a two week period: Ali Gaye succumbed to a broken hand, Andre Anthony tore his ACL only minutes after recording his first defensive touchdown, Derek Stingley Jr's ankle injury ended his season after just 3 games, while Major Burns and Eli Ricks both suffered shoulder problems which curtailed their promising starts.....even Joe Evans quit the team to pursue a rap career, as starting safety Jay Ward had to fight his way back from a concussion.
LSU's defense lost all these talents & core leaders in such a quick time span, with almost no time to recover before the meat of their SEC schedule.
The Tigers' defense needed a leader....ASAP.
Though he registered high tackle numbers through the first few games of 2021, Clark still remained an easy scapegoat for LSU's early season failures....But against Mississippi State's grinding short passing attack, Damone began to silence doubters.
Remembering everything he'd been taught, everything his parents instilled, everything said about him by people he would never meet, all the doubts, all the questions....flashing across his mind as he worked relentlessly....in the film room on Saturday mornings in Spring....running ladders in the park that January....making the weight room his "second living room"....more than anything, Clark wanted to become an NFL linebacker....and he was willing to do whatever it took to make it happen.
All that was needed?
A red hot 2021 that could also cement his legacy as a Tiger.
After enduring the trials of 2020, there was repeated second guessing, no matter how many stats were put to paper....constant debate centered around whether he could pair hard-won mental attributes (found within the best linebackers) alongside his prodigious athleticism; While being eagerly roasted by many analysts and fans, 2021 truly became make or break for Damone.
Making one tackle after another (15 total) as LSU controlled Mike Leach's passing attack for much of the morning, Damone racked up the stops on paper; But on-field, each tackle prevented numerous 5 yard completions from becoming 15 yard first down gains. #18 also continued his peak stamina, lasting every defensive snap vs Miss St's 62 passing attempts.
Game by game, along with LSU's injury ravaged defense, Clark clawed his way back to the top. He didn't just deliver.....Clark was LSU's best overall Tiger for the 2021 season.
From Damone's 12 games, he produced 10+ tackles against 8 separate opponents, headlined by his 19 vs Ole Miss, 15 vs Miss State, 13 vs Auburn, 2.5 sacks against A&M (on the final two plays), first career interception vs Florida (sealing victory)......or who could forget the devastating pounding he gave Alabama's Bryce Young as he led LSU's defense on a complete shutdown mission, surrendering a historic 6 rushing yards...
Clark left it all on the field, producing one incredible stop after another, even in defeat: Nearing the final seconds vs Ole Miss, down 20+ points, Damone denied a last minute Rebels' touchdown when he smashed their receiver at the goal-line, forcing a fumble into the end zone and saving some face on the day.
2021 is filled with the same brand of vicious, no stone-unturned playmaking.....Clark paying attention to every little detail...pre-snap....post-snap....on every snap, #18 stood apart from the others.
But if you need any indication of how Damone Clark represented LSU, just look at the way he finished his Tigers career: Sealing a narrow 27-24 victory over A&M with two consecutive sacks in the final 6 seconds, #18 was as relentless a player as you're likely to find....
During LSU's worst season of the 21st century, as the program lost record numbers of players and a head coach who led the National Championship team only 2 years prior, Damone Clark wanted to leave behind an untouchable legacy at LSU....one of wild perseverance, intense dedication, and sweet, sweet, sweet vindication.
When you look for a prototype to represent the present / future of the linebacker position, you either turn on Devin White's playoff games from Tampa Bay's Super Bowl run, or you put on film of Damone's performances vs Miss St, Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida or Texas A&M: these were historic-sized showcases of absolute steambreathing savagery which literally defined the word linebacker.
Although..........what defines Damone Clark?
Just three words:
OUR COVERAGE OF DAMONE CLARK:
#1 PRESEASON PROFILE: CAN HE REBOUND FROM 2020?
#2 IN SEASON PROFILE
#3 IN SEASON PROFILE #2
#4 IN SEASON PROFILE #3
#5 IN SEASON PROFILE #4
#6 ROBBED OF BUTKUS AWARD
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Copyright 2022 Uninterrupted Writings Inc