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September 3, 2013

Two paths to a big night

One packed up and moved ten hours North. One stayed in the same place for four long years. Both searched for the same thing. On Saturday night, Jaleel Clark and Darius White both found what they had spent years looking for: A chance.

Clark signed with Missouri in February of 2009, a three-star receiver out of Allentown, PA, who turned down offers from Penn State, Pitt, Minnesota and Connecticut to play his college football 984 miles away in Columbia, MO.

White, a four-star prospect and the nation's sixth-ranked high school wide receiver, chose the University of Texas a year later out of a who's who list of offers that included Oklahoma, Oregon, USC, Notre Dame, Auburn and Florida.

Until Saturday night, their career ledgers combined to reflect seven catches for 77 yards and one touchdown. That score belonged to White, a 31-yarder against Texas Tech on October 5th, 2011. Clark had just one reception, a six-yarder in a 19-15 loss to Vanderbilt in 2012.

Both ended up at Missouri for the same reason.

"Coach Stec was the main reason," White said of Mizzou defensive coordinator Dave Steckel.

"Coach Steckel, we're from the same area," Clark recalled. "When he was looking at me, he just was there every day and he just kept calling me. He took it to the whole next level of trying to get me down here. He played a big part."

White spent two years in Austin. He appeared in 21 games, but caught only six passes. He never had more than two receptions in a game and never more than 23 yards.

"I didn't give up on the program. I just went in asked coach (Mack) Brown, said, 'I really think I need a fresh start,'" White said. "He was behind me a hundred percent. He told me take a couple days, think about it, see what you think. I did that, talked to my mom, he gave me a free release to go anywhere. I really respect him for that."

White didn't have a destination in mind. He looked around a little bit. But a conversation with Fort Worth Dunbar coach Todd Lawson opened his eyes to the Tigers.

"He asked me what did I think about Missouri. I said, 'Coach, that's ten hours away. I was like, oh man,' I didn't want to be that far from my mom. I am kind of like a mother's boy," White said. "You know, I talked to my coach, he asked what I wanted to do, I said, 'Coach, let me think about it.' Talked to coach Stec a few days later, told coach Stec let me think about it. Like two days later I told him, 'Coach, I'll be there the first week of school' and I was here.

"I was blessed that coach Stec called my coach and said they got a full ride if they come up here for me."

Due to NCAA transfer rules, White had to sit out the entire 2012 season.

"Oh, man, it was tough. Last year was it was one of my toughest years but I want to say it was one of the years I learned the most," he said. "Patience, humble, staying focused on the task at hand, learning the playbook, everything. I took last year as a big learning experience. Last year was pretty hard, but it was pretty good at the same."

It is a year that not all transfers use the way they should.

"Last year I grabbed Darius and I told him, 'You can go down there and just run scout team the whole time or you can go out and try to become a better football player. Every day. It's a choice you have. It's simply up to you,'" Gary Pinkel said. "He went down and worked his tail off."

The payoff came Saturday night. White was on the field sparingly in the first half. It was his first football game in 20 months.

"My first time taking the field when I was a freshman was playing against Rice. When I say my adrenaline was just running, I was like, 'Man, I'm out here in front of all these people.' After I got that first snap, it was all over," he recalled. "Same thing the other night when we played against Murray State. I got out there, I was like, 'Man, I'm out here again playing in front of all these people. Get this first one of the way.' Got the first one out of the way, I was fine."

White got the call again on Missouri's first drive of the third quarter. The Tigers led 30-14 and took possession at their own 30-yard line. White caught a seven-yard pass from James Franklin. On the next play, Franklin ran for 26 yards, to the Murray State 37. Lining up for the next snap, White's eyes got big.

"I looked at James after the play that they had called," White said. "I looked up, I saw the safety rotate to the other side of the field, I was like, 'Man, this play is gonna be wide open.'"

Wide open would be an understatement. White beat his man and found himself all alone as Franklin lofted the pass down the right side of the field.

"It seems like the ball stays in the air for a long time," wide receivers coach Pat Washington said. "You're thinking about your touchdown, you're thinking about what's around you, about to be hit or whatever the case may be. If you ever just lose any kind of focus and that ball is in your hands, you can drop it. And I've seen it dropped several times in my coaching career."

Not this time. After waiting so long, Darius White wasn't dropping that one. He hauled it in and crossed the goal line to give Mizzou a 37-14 lead.

"I looked up, the ball was coming to me. All I could think was 'Man, it's coming to me. It's coming. Just catch it,'" White said. "Caught it, ran in the end zone, I was so happy, I couldn't even celebrate right."

With luck, he'll get a more chances at the celebration. Because Darius White knows plenty about second chances.

And the best part about this second chance? The self-proclaimed mama's boy had a special fan in the stands at Faurot Field to watch it happen.

"She was up here this weekend," White said of his mom. "She says she's going to try to make all of them, but I know she probably can't make all of them with the drive."

Sometimes, a fresh start is the best thing. But sometimes, just keeping your head down and working gets the job done.

Jaleel Clark could have left. No Division One prospect comes out of high school thinking if he just redshirts, then runs the scout team, then busts his tail on special teams for a couple of seasons, maybe finally, in year five, his chance will come. Certainly Jaleel Clark didn't think it would take this long when he left Parkland High School as the No. 16 player in the talent-rich state of Pennsylvania.

But he didn't transfer. He says he never even thought about it.

"I never really thought like that," he said. "I was getting a great experience of playing and special teams and stuff. I never really thought about leaving."

For that, his coaches and teammates admire Clark.

"I talked in the meeting about him today," Pinkel said. "Here's a guy that never complains, never moans and groans I should be playing more or anything. He's a company man, but he always works hard. He always works hard."

Over the last three years, Clark made 25 tackles on special teams for the Tigers. Most people probably didn't notice. Pinkel did.

"He was on almost every phase of our kicking game a year ago. He was making tackles," the coach said. "You could just see how well he played. We kind of used him as an example to our team about a guy that was making a great contribution in the kicking game last year as a junior."

He caught a pass against Vanderbilt. But Clark's role seemed to be limited to special teams duty. At least until fall camp. He caught a 75-yard touchdown in one scrimmage. He saw the ball repeatedly.

"We talk about players every single day, every individual. And every time I talk about him, the one word I use pretty consistently is consistency," Washington said. "I know he's not this or that, but continues to make plays, continue to be where he's supposed to be, I think he can help us."

"I was telling some of the reporters, I was like, man Jaleel is gonna deliver big for us," said team captain L'Damian Washington. "Just because I saw his swagger increase, I saw his confidence shoot up. He was a guy that was making plays all throughout camp."

"Those scrimmages, I think they played a big part," Clark said. "I had a couple great plays and just practicing hard and coming out there and just practicing tough. That's how you get on the field."

Finally, in Saturday's season opener, Clark did. To say he took advantage would be an understatement. The fifth-year senior caught a team-high five passes, one for each year on campus and four more than he'd caught in his first four seasons combined.

"First time playing big time minutes, I got a little nervous at first, but those butterflies just go away," Clark said. "Once I'm playing I just think about performing well and making plays."

"I know it means a lot to him, but it means a lot to me," L'Damian Washington said of his teammate. "Just to see that and it finally pay off for him in a game is very rewarding for me and I know especially for him."

"Here is a senior and a guy that comes in and not only comes in and makes a couple catches, but made a couple really significant catches and a couple difficult catches, tough catches. I'm really happy for him. He's just a great example of somebody who maintains a great attitude," Pinkel said. "It's a great visual aid for our whole football team."

Even his more well-traveled teammate and fellow breakout performer took notice.

"That right there really kind of set the tone for the night," Darius White said. "Jaleel making those catches, I really feel like he got everybody going."

"To go out there and get my second catch in a game and to just make plays like that," Clark said, "The last five years has been worth it now."

Different paths, similar result. For one, the best choice was to move on. For the other, the best choice was refusing to.

"It's just like in life. Sometimes we have to hit the reset button," Pat Washington said. "We have to make changes. I'm not saying it's the best thing to do, but sometimes you have to do it."

"Kids nowadays obviously want to play," Pinkel said. "A lot of times they might think the grass is greener somewhere else and it might not be. I think it just depends on the player."

Darius White and Jaleel Clark are living proof.

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