By Dan Harrison
---- — When a Division 1 college football coach makes the jump to the pros, it can create a number of problems for the players left behind.
But when Doug Marrone left Syracuse this winter to take the job with the Buffalo Bills, former Masconomet star Clay Cleveland — currently a fullback for the Orange — was able to find a solution.
There weren’t a lot of snaps for a fullback in Marrone’s spread offense. But in first year skipper Scott Shafer’s pistol offense, Cleveland is making a major impact for Syracuse in a position most consider to be in its dying days.
“I started (in 2012) but we ran the spread offense and rarely used the fullback, so didn’t play as much as I would have liked,” said Cleveland. “The personnel groupings were mostly four or five wide receivers. I came in for couple short yardage situations, but nothing I got too excited about.”
This fall, it’s hard not to get excited about Cleveland if you’re a Syracuse fan or someone who’s followed the former Chieftain. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound senior isn’t just existing in the Orange offense; he’s contributing in a big way.
Against Tulane earlier in the fall, Cleveland caught his first and second career collegiate touchdown passes in Syracuse’s 52-17 win. The Orange call it a ‘flow pass’ as Cleveland appears to get lost in the shuffle before sneaking out of the backfield. Both times his number was called Cleveland answered, proving to be an extremely reliable goal-line threat.
“It was awesome. We have a couple of passes for the fullback at the goal line; fortunately, (Tulane’s) defensive scheme allowed me to be open and I was fortunate to catch the ball,” Cleveland explained. “I almost felt like it didn’t happen; it took me a couple of minutes after to realize. It was like a dream.”
It’s a dream realized through hard work and determination. Originally, Cleveland walked on the team prior to the 2010 season, but his dedication and future promise in the program earned him a scholarship going into this fall.
Playing fullback at Syracuse is one of the most recognized positions in the history of college football; the great Jim Brown did so in the 1950s, and other NFL stars such as Jim Nance, Larry Csonka and Daryl ‘Moose’ Johnston followed him. So did former St. John’s Prep great Rob Konrad, who like Brown wore No. 44 (the last player to do so before it was retired by the school) and played fullback for ‘Cuse before going on to a pro career with the Miami Dolphins.
Academics were a big part of his decision to go to Syracuse, and Cleveland’s emphasis on his education hasn’t lessened over time. Attending Syracuse’s Whitman School of Management, he was named to the 2011 and 2012 Big East All-Academic teams.
When he first stepped on campus in upstate New York, Cleveland naturally had to adapt to different terminologies and a more complex playbook than the former Chieftain star was used to. He redshirted his freshman season, leaving him with another season of eligibility after this year — as well as some much needed time to acclimate to the college football environment.
“I remember when I first got here it was a whole other terminology and types of schemes and plays and names. I’m fortunate to have redshirted; it took me a little while to develop at the college level,” explained Cleveland. “It’s faster, there’s more responsibility and a lot less room for error. But it’s one of those things that with time, I started getting the hang of it. It’s a big commitment, but it’s an awesome experience.”
One of the biggest changes from high school to college are the crowd sizes. Nearly 50,000 people pack the Carrier Dome for big home games, and at first it can be a little intimidating, said Cleveland.
On the physical side, Cleveland was used to heavy weightlifting at Masconomet. He didn’t quite realize he’d be running as much off the field as he was expected to with the Orange.
“When I first got there the big shock was we run a lot. In the summer we’d do 36 110-yard sprints a couple times a week — and it was timed,” said Cleveland. “But your body gets used to it. The running was the biggest adjustment.”
Cleveland’s blocking assignments call on him to be able to kick out defensive ends and smash against linebackers usually much bigger than his 230-pound frame. It takes technique, determination and fearlessness.
“Before games you always get the same kind of nerves until that first hit,” he said. “My first play was in a game against Penn State where I had to kick out the defensive end. Once I got that hit out of the way, I was OK and it got me into the flow of the game. I was like ‘OK, it’s just football for me now.’ These guys are bigger, so I try to stay low ... not to think and just go.”
Forever a Chieftain
Most importantly, Cleveland is smart and has the ability to adapt to what’s going on. Sometimes, plays don’t go exactly how they’re drawn up and it takes confidence and intelligence to make the right decision on the fly.
“I think I have the ability to adjust on the go. If my responsibility is to block a defensive end and for whatever reason someone else blocked him, I have the ability to adjust and find someone to else to block,” said Cleveland. “Coaches tell me I have good hands, which helps when they do decide to throw to me. I feel I should catch every one.”
With one year of college football eligibility left, Cleveland plans to play in 2014 with hopes of one day possibly making the NFL. He will attend the Orange’s Pro Day in the spring to see where he stands in the eyes of NFL scouts and while he knows it’s a long shot, if Cleveland can put on some pounds and continue to show he’s a threat in the passing game anything could happen.
To this day, Cleveland still follows the Chieftains football program. One of the reasons Cleveland was so prepared to play at the Division 1 level was the time he spent at Masconomet under head coach Jim Pugh and his staff.
“I’ll never forget where I came from and where it all started. Those guys are awesome over there and I keep an eye on ‘em every week,” said Cleveland. “I’ll always bleed Masco football.”