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Willie Martinez on Nevelle Clarke: He has that ‘it’ factor on game days

The Knights’ secondary coach talked Wednesdasy about how Clarke’s game translates to the NFL level

Former UCF cornerback Nevelle Clarke returns an interception 48 yards for a touchdown during the Knights’ triumph over UConn in September 2019.
Photo: Derek Warden

The wait is on to see which 255 football players will hear their name called during the 2020 NFL Draft, which begins tonight.

Former UCF Knights cornerback Nevelle Clarke’s wait figures to be an extended one. As a projected late-round selection or undrafted free agent, he likely won’t know his future until Saturday afternoon. Teams that play a lot of man coverage should be interested in Clarke’s rangy, 6-foot-1 frame which he uses to disrupt receivers at the snap and snag balls out of the sky. He picked off five passes and deflected 28 more during his final three seasons as a Knight.

But perhaps Clarke’s best trait is his competitive fire. His secondary coach at UCF, Willie Martinez, said Wednesday that which ever team signs Clarke is going to get one of the best game day performers he has seen in his more than 30 years of college coaching.

“One thing that I love about Nevelle — we’ve said it all along — in my career, he’s in my top 5, if not top 3, of game day players,” Martinez said.

“You have guys that do a great job of preparing — not that he doesn’t. They do a great job in practice and then come game time, they’re just a little bit different, a little bit off. Nevelle, he’s a game guy. He loves the competition. He loves game day, and he performs on game day at a different level than others do. It’s just that “it” factor, whatever it is.”

Clarke’s preparation improved in his senior season, according to Martinez, which is exactly why he decided to not enter the draft following the 2018 junior season. Clarke wanted to refine his prep skills, learn how to manage his time better and more readily comprehend schemes.

“He learned more ball and how to preapre better,” Martinez said. “We’ve talked about that leading up to here for the draft. He’s done a really good job with a lot of the teams; he has shared that with me. I’ve gotten feedback with it, that he’s done a great job.”

Martinez has a history of coaching cornerbacks who ended up making some noise at the NFL level despite going undrafted.

At Auburn, he coached Jonathan Jones, who went undrafted in 2016, but has won two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots and has played in 71 of a possible 74 games.

At Tennessee, he coached Justin Coleman, who went undrafted in 2015, as well as Emmanuel Moseley, who went undrafted in 2018. Coleman also won a Super Bowl with the Patriots and signed a four-year, $36 million contract with the Detroit Lions last year. Moseley started 11 games for the San Francisco 49ers last season, including the NFC Championship Game — in which he picked off Aaron Rodgers — and Super Bowl LIV.

Clarke’s odds of succeeding at the highest football level will depend on, among many things, landing in the right scheme, one that plays to his strengths as a press-man corner. It will also depend on the locker room around him.

“If he gets in the right leadership culture, he’s going to flourish,” Martinez said, “because he’s not much of a guy up front who’s going to want to be heard all the time. He just wants to do his thing. ... But I thnk he’ll do a great job. I think he’ll be ready.”