Towards the end of fall camp last year, he could already tell he was being looked at, at a higher standard than his other true freshman teammates.
Defensive lineman Jared Clendenin was seeing more and more action in practice with the one and two groups, also benefiting from a few injuries to players higher than him on the depth chart. The week before the season-opener at Indiana, Clendenin was named as the only positional true freshman who wouldn't redshirt. The other non-redshirt was since departed long snapper Josh Stinson.
As a result Clendenin, a self-professed fun-loving guy, was forced to grow up quickly.
"I had to," he said. "I'm one of those guys that likes to play and have a good time. I really had to calm it down and get focused in the meetings and things and learn everything quick."
On a senior-laden defensive line, Clendenin played in all 12 games, finishing with 18 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
"I really learned that you've gotta play the run, really," he said. "It's live out there. It's not high school no more, those guys are huge. The main thing is to stay low and go hard, really. That's the main thing I learned. I got my fair share of getting rolled up a couple of times. I had to learn after the first couple of games."
With that experienced line now gone, Clendenin brings back the most experience this season. Because of that, he's being counted on to anchor the line, as well as help the youngsters, or as defensive line coach Eric Mathies calls them, 'young pups.'
"There's a lot expected of him," coach David Elson said. "He's one of the guys obviously, that has the most experience on the D-line. He's a phenomenal leader for us. He needs to understand how much of a leader he is for us, quite honestly, because guys really do look up to him, he's one of our best overall workers, it's just hard to get him tired. He's got so much energy and passion for the game. We need him to bring some of these younger guys with him and approach things the way he does."
Clendenin himself isn't quite mature just yet. He still plays like a sophomore, because he is one. But his line-mates now look to him for leadership.
"He played last year as a true freshman and he's going into his second year, but it seems like he's been here for a while," junior defensive lineman Nick Hartnett said. "He seems to know what's going on and he seems to really be stepping up throughout the whole summer and stepping into the shoes as a leader."
Clendenin might be the most seasoned returning lineman, but he's still a ways from where the Toppers would like him to be. Clendenin recognizes that as well.
"I'm gonna have to work a lot on pass rushing," he said. "I put a little work into it in the off-season, but I think I should've done more pass rushing things. I've got a long way to come on my pass rush and run-stopping, getting my second foot down, things like that, getting off that ball quickly. It's gonna be alright, though."
There's more inexperience on WKU's defensive line than at any other position, one of the reasons the Toppers have doubters putting them at the bottom of the national rankings of all 120 FBS teams. But Clendenin said he and the rest of the defensive line are showing progress every day and that they'll be ready come Sept. 5 at Tennessee.
"As long as you've got guys that wanna work hard and they wanna fight, they can mess up where they're going, but as long as they're messing up full speed, we can work with that," he said. "I'd rather have a guy that messes up full-speed than a guy that knows what he's doing but is not gonna work."
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