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UL football coach Billy Napier discusses the Cajuns' 2020 signing class during the National Signing Day Fan Social at Russo Park's Stadium Club on Wednesday.

Recruiting is about anticipating potential.

Alabama Christian Academy coach Nate Sanford is convinced the UL Ragin’ Cajuns got a young athlete with more room for growth than most in the college football world realize on Thursday.

Jalen Clark is a two-way starter for Sanford’s squad in Montgomery, Alabama, who tweeted out his verbal commitment to the Cajuns on Thursday afternoon.

“Jalen is one of the top three athletes I’ve coached in 20 years of coaching high school football,” Sanford said.

Sanford said he first learned how good Clark was going to be when he was forced into playing as a 14-year-old freshman because of an injury.

In only his third game, Clark rushed for five touchdowns in a win.

On Thursday, Clark turned 17.

“He’s got plenty of upside,” Sanford said. “But really, the football side is actually a very small part of the story about Jalen.

“He’s one of the neatest student-athletes that I’ve ever had the pleasure to coach. He just has a superstar personality — kind of larger than life. He’s constantly smiling, laughing, joking, dancing … just at 10 out of 10 in terms of how much enjoyment he gets out of playing football, being around his teammates and enjoying life.”

Clark said his selected the Cajuns over Tulane and Georgia Southern. Some schools recruited the 6-foot-2 1/2, 185-pounder as a quarterback and some as a defensive back.

UL recruited him as an athlete and defensive back.

“I understand the Cajuns are very high on his defensive abilities and I don’t fault them at all for that,” Sanford said. “He could play at the next level on either side of the ball."

The position wasn’t the biggest priority for Clark.

“I love the sport of football,” Clark said. “Any position they put me in, I’m good. It’s not really about the position for me. It’s just about the love for football. They said they saw something special in me as a defensive back. I just love football, so I’ll just look forward to working on my craft.”

So what drew Clark to the Cajuns’ coaching staff wasn’t even about football.

“I was paying attention to the communication to see how much they were they willing to talk to me and get to know me as a person, more than just a football player,” Clark said. “They were always checking up on me.

“On the commercial, everything looks good. But the more they talked to me about the plan, they showed me the facilities, the plans and what they can do for me academically, that’s basically how I made my decision.”

Sanford said Clark has mostly played safety in the past, but plans are to make him a “lockdown cornerback” this fall, in addition to playing quarterback.

“His skill set is one of the quickest players on the field, regardless of who we play,” Clark said. “For us, we can put him on the other team’s best receiver and call that a wash-out. Other than that, the dude can stroke. He’s a tough runner to bring down, so that transfers to the other side of the ball very easily.

“He can be a lockdown corner and we may want to situation him a little bit on defense.”

After starting seven freshman last year, Sanford selfishly can’t wait to see the offensive numbers Clark puts up this season.

“Jalen loves the long ball,” he laughed. “That’s for sure. He’s so confident in his ability to escape any pressure. That gives him a pillow of confidence to take another second and make sure he’s not missing anything 40 yards down the field. If he doesn’t like what he sees, he’s perfectly capable of tucking the ball away and plenty of coaches have told me that’s really their worst nightmare.”

Clark picking the Cajuns is actually a return to Louisiana for him. He was born in New Orleans and his family landed in Montgomery after Hurricane Katrina.

“Coming to Lafayette for Jalen was a pretty natural next step for him,” Sanford said.

Sanford said he thinks the coronavirus shutdown limited the recruiting of Clark, which UL took advantage of.

“Jalen fell in love with the Cajuns right off the start. Coach (Austin) Armstrong did a really good job. They did a really good job of making him feel like he was their guy and that he was exactly who and what they wanted. They stayed in constant communication with him as allowed by the rules.”


Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.