Ferndale senior Cooper Clark has been on the radar of coach Jamie Plenkovich a whole lot longer than just the past four seasons.
"We had a kids' camp, and we saw a lot in him when he was younger," Plenkovich said in a phone interview. "You could tell then, he already was very, very competitive. He didn't like to lose - he wanted to win."
After two years in the high school program, it was that same quality, along with Clark's instinctual leadership, that persuaded Plenkovich and his coaching staff to try moving Clark from his natural position of receiver to quarterback.
"I've been a receiver my whole life, and to this day, that is what I consider my position," Clark said in a phone interview. "When I went to camps (this past summer) at Stanford and Notre Dame, I went as a receiver, because that is my favorite position. I remember Coach pulling me out of class one day and telling me straight up that he wanted me to play quarterback. At first I was shocked and nervous, and I didn't know why he wanted that. I didn't know if I would be able to do a good job."
Make no doubt about it, Clark has performed more than adequately.
Last year, in his first as a starting signal caller, he led the Golden Eagles to a 9-2 record and back to the Class 3A State Playoffs. This year, Ferndale is off to a 3-0 start and is ranked 10th in the latest Associated Press Class 3A High School Football Poll, as it prepares to host Burlington-Edison in a key Class 2A/3A Northwest Conference game on Friday, Sept. 27.
Clark may not dazzle with the numbers he's put up passing the ball - he's hit six of nine pass attempts for 133 yards with one TD and on interception so far this year after passing for 386 yards and five touchdowns as a junior. Not even his rushing statistics will overwhelm anyone - in one plus year he's rushed for 86 yards and two TDs on 58 carries.
But what makes Clark so valuable to his team is exactly what Plenkovich saw from him in those youth camps - his competitiveness and his natural leadership.
"In some ways, it's just how he's built," Plenkovich said. "He wants to do the things we ask him to do, and he wants to do them right. He's a bit of a perfectionist. He knows where he wants this team to be at the end of the year, and he expects everybody to be on the same page. He's just a natural leader and a natural competitor."
Clark said that's the way he's always been.
Being the youngest of five with two older brothers, Clark said he's always pushed himself and has always been competing.
"Both my brothers played football," Clark said. "I was always smaller than them, but they pushed me to work hard. I've always tried to compete with them and keep up with them. Playing with kids that were bigger, faster and stronger than me pushed me to work harder, and I just never stopped. I wanted to be better than them."
It was that very attitude that earned Clark his first starting position at defensive back when he was only a sophomore.
Plenkovich said Clark really wasn't in the mix to see much playing time when the 2011 season started, but injuries and opportunity opened the door in a Week 3 game at Arlington, and the coaching staff called Clark's name late in a close game.
"That was one of the best moments of my high school career," Clark said. "I wasn't expecting to play that day. It was weird - going into my sophomore year, I always thought I would get a chance to play under the lights, so I knew I had to be prepared in case that situation ever came along. I saw how the starters prepared, and I tried to be just like them, but I wasn't expecting anything that night.
"But then one of our guys got pulled, and it was my shot. Coach always says that when sophomores get in, it's their time to show what they've got. That's when my competitive and perfectionist side kicked in. It was third-and-goal in a four-point game, and (Arlington) saw a new defensive back come in, so they tried to throw a goal fade route. I jumped up and knocked it down."
He hasn't left the field, defensively, since.
The intangibles he showed as a sophomore solidified him in the eyes of Plenkovich and his staff as the guy they were looking for to take over at quarterback following the graduation of Jacob Frost.
"He didn't disappoint," Plenkovich said. "What was most impressive last year was how quickly he picked up what we expect from a quarterback and what it takes to run the Wing-T for a guy that had never played the position before."
While Clark has done a good job of making the transition look rather easy, he's still not satisfied.
In fact Clark, who admits to being his own harshest critic, is not yet happy with his ability to pass.
"I'm still not perfect throwing the ball," Clark said. "Running the Wing-T, we don't throw all that much, and I pass well enough to be effective, but the perfectionist in me wants to be better. I understand coverages and read where I should go with the ball, but it's a matter of when to throw and the accuracy of it all.
"Another hard thing is stepping back and not just wanting to run with the ball. I'm used to having the ball in my hands and trying to get away. It's difficult to sit in the pocket with six big guys trying to chase you down."
But the one area Clark has excelled at is probably the most important role of a quarterback in the Wing-T- ball handling. In fact, Plenkovich called Clark "the best ball handler we've had in a while."
"Ball handling is very big in an offense with three running backs going in three different directions," Clark said. "It's my job to make it look like every ball carrier has the ball. I've watched myself on film to see how I can improve. It's progressed since last year. I realized it was a big part of the offense, and I've seen what defenses do when you make good fakes. Sometimes fans can't see where the ball is going, so I imagine it's got to be tough on defenses."
The other thing that is extremely tough on defenses is a confident, charismatic, ultra-competitive leader, who knows how to get all 11 men on the field working together towards a common goal and striving for perfection.
Fortunately for Ferndale, the Golden Eagles just happened to uncover a guy like that during its youth camp a few years ago.
With Clark at the helm, the Ferndale offense averaged 328.6 rushing yards per game last year and the Golden Eagles averaged 39.5 points. This year, those numbers have climbed to 388.7 and 41.0 in the first three weeks, and Clark has his eyes on even more.
"I want to score a touchdown on every play, every time we run it," Clark said. "I want there to be no mistakes. ... I always try to be the best. I don't care if it's football; I don't care if it's baseball; I don't care if it's a game of chess, I want to be the best guy in the room. I'm not saying I will be, but I'm going to give it my best. That's just how I'm built."
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.