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gwinnett grads: Auburn's Clark takes aim at pro career

Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville introduced Matt Clark at the team's senior ceremony as "the No. 1 kickoff specialist in the

country."

Whether that translates into a job in the NFL remains to be seen. But the South Gwinnett grad plans to give it a shot.

"Since last season started and I started kicking more consistently, I thought, 'Hey, I can do this,'" Clark said of a possible pro football career. "I'd definitely like to try kicking in the NFL. Ever since I got back (from the Cotton Bowl), I've been kicking with NFL balls."

Aside from finishing the one class he needs to graduate in industrial design, the 22-year-old Clark won't be doing much more than kicking NFL balls the next few months. He plans to kick four or five times a week as well as participate in a Prattville, Ala., kicking camp every two weeks. While there, he will work with younger kickers and get time to work on his own skills.

Auburn's Pro Day in February will draw plenty of NFL scouts, so Clark is trying to get ready for that showcase. He has no delusions about being selected in the April 28-29 NFL Draft (few kickers ever get that call), but he hopes to catch the eye of a scout and get an opportunity as a free agent. That goal isn't far fetched at all.

He also could kick at another level, something like the Arena Football League, but he's aiming high.

"I'm not real sure about (the other pro options) right now," Clark said. "I think I have the ability to kick in the NFL so that's what I'm focusing on."

Clark doesn't have the credentials of some college kickers, but some of that was dictated by his circumstances of being the back-up to Auburn's career scoring leader.

Tiger senior John Vaughn was one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top placekicker after making 19 of 23 field goals this season. His 82.6 field-goal percentage led the SEC as did his 1.58 field goals per game, which also was sixth nationally.

The good news for Clark is that many NFL scouts look for potential, which he has, instead of reputation, particularly when it comes to kickers. It's a position where many journeymen without big-time college credentials find their way into the league.

"Yeah, it gives me confidence (to know so many other longshots have made NFL teams at kicker)," Clark said. "Knowing I was strong on kickoffs helps, unfortunately I was behind one of the best field goal kickers in the nation at Auburn. But it also gives me confidence knowing I was pushing him for the (placekicking) job in the preseason. It's just a matter of producing at pro day or at a tryout and someone taking notice."

Few kickers got as much acclaim for their kickoffs as Clark, who was regularly praised by TV announcers, sometimes multiple times per game, for his touchbacks.

Prior to the Cotton Bowl, Clark had 49 touchbacks on 62 kickoffs (79.0 percent). Because of those booming kicks, Auburn ranked first in the nation by a wide margin in fewest kickoff return yards allowed for the season with 197. Arizona State was second nationally, giving up 276 kickoff return yards despite kicking off 13 fewer times than Auburn.

"I would have liked to finish over 80 percent, most of the season I was closer to 85 percent, but I finished at 79," said Clark, the Sept. 25 SEC Special Teams Player of the Week. "(The NCAA) doesn't keep those stats officially, but people told me I finished the season with the highest percentage (of touchbacks) in the nation. So I've got to be happy."

At one point (two actually), it looked like Clark's kicking career at Auburn would end before it really got started.

A walk-on, he made the Tigers' squad in 2002 but missed 2003 because of a limit on the number of walk-ons the team could carry. He made the team again in 2004 and earned an SEC Championship ring, but found out in 2005 (again because of the walk-on limit) that he wouldn't have a spot that season.

So he watched Auburn's first two games of last year from the stands, and witnessed its kickoff struggles firsthand. He met with Auburn special teams coach Eddie Gran about returning to help the kickoff team, and he immediately impressed. By the weekend Clarke - whose sister Veronica is married to former Georgia and current Seattle Seahawks quarterback David Greene - was on the travel squad for the first time in his college career and soon he was the team's No. 1 kickoff guy for the rest of 2005.

Slightly more than a year later, he's arguably the nation's top kickoff guy.

"It's very weird how I got here," Clark said. "I knew I was capable of doing it all along. I'm just glad they gave me the chance."

VOLLEYBALL

DeMarrais completes

standout career

Brookwood grad Jacque DeMarrais recently completed an outstanding volleyball career at Piedmont College by making the Great South Athletic Conference's All-Conference and All-Academic teams. It was her fourth straight season to receive both the athletic and academic honors from

the GSAC.

The middle hitter holds several Piedmont career, season and game records, including most career kills. She also was named GSAC Freshman of the Year in 2003.

BASKETBALL

Richmann gets

SCAC honor

Oglethorpe sophomore Elizabeth Richmann, a Central Gwinnett grad, was named the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference Co-Player of the Week for her performance over the final two weeks of 2005.

Richmann had 12 points and six rebounds vs. Agnes Scott and added 10 points and a school-record tying nine steals vs. Averrett. She then had 21 points along with 11 rebounds and five steals in Oglethorpe's 81-75 upset of 10th-ranked Illinois Wesleyan.

She followed those efforts up with 17 points and nine rebounds in a 92-84 victory over Ferrum College.

Cohen excels

at Southeastern

Hebron Christian grad Rebekah Cohen, a freshman at Southeastern University (Fla.), averaged 13.7 points over a recent six-game stretch for the Fire.

Cohen, who attended Lee University (Tenn.) in 2005-06 but didn't play basketball, scored 23 points in a victory over Appalachian Bible this season. She also had 11 points, 10 rebounds, eight steals and four assists in a win over Piedmont Baptist College.

Southeastern competes in the National Christian College Athletic Association.

Strauthers starting for Tide

Shiloh grad Courtney Strauthers is starting as a true freshman for the Alabama women's basketball team. She has seven starts so far for the 10-6 squad.

Strauthers averages 6.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and 18.4 minutes per game.

Alexander leads Newberry to record start

Norcross grad Monica Alexander has helped Newberry College (S.C.) to the best start in school history. The Indians started 11-0 before losing to Wingate 63-55 in their most recent game.

The junior guard averages 10.5 points and 4.8 assists, with a season scoring high of 24 vs. Limestone College. She also has made 28 of 33 free throws (84.8 percent).

In the loss to Wingate, Alexander scored a game-high 20 on 7 of 10 shooting.

Gwinnett Grads is a column that runs on Saturdays spotlighting the achievements of past Gwinnett standouts. Coaches and parents are urged to send suggestions via e-mail to will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com or via fax to 770-339-8081.