- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Two words attach themselves to Michigan defensive end Frank Clark.
The first is potential. Clark has plenty. Wolverines All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan saw it throughout spring practice, when he faced Clark on a daily basis. Michigan coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison also see what the 6-foot-2, 277-pound Cleveland native could be this season for the Wolverines defense.
"He's so athletic, it's unmatched in my opinion," Lewan told ESPN.com. "He has so much potential to do so many things here, which would be awesome. But a person told me once that potential means you haven’t done anything yet. Frank has the opportunity this year to really come out and blossom."
The value of that opportunity isn't lost on Clark because he nearly threw it away last summer. He pleaded guilty in September to second-degree home invasion after admitting to stealing a laptop computer from a student's room in his dormitory. The offense took place June 14 -- Clark's 19th birthday.
Clark was suspended for Michigan's season-opening loss to Alabama before returning to the field.
"I had to mature after last year," Clark said. "My coaches, as much as they've done for me, giving me another opportunity to play here at this great school, another opportunity to further my education despite everything I went through last year, there's nothing more I could have asked for."
The lesson for Clark?
"I’ve got to stay out the way, I can't get into any more trouble, I can't do what I did," he said.
Although Clark missed only one game, he paid "heavy consequences" for his mistake, according to Hoke, inside the walls of Schembechler Hall. Hoke saw changes in Clark, especially after the season and when Michigan got into spring ball.
"Growing up as a young man, you really see an accountability to his teammates from Frank," Hoke said.
There's that second word, accountability. Clark always has had potential to be a star, but only recently has he embraced the need to be accountable and the responsibility he now carries for the Wolverines' defense.
Just a true junior, Clark is one of Michigan's most experienced defensive linemen along with Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black. He has appeared in 23 games, starting four last season, and quietly recorded nine tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three pass breakups in 2012.
When Michigan lost All-Big Ten linebacker Jake Ryan to a torn ACL in March, the big question around the program was who would step into a featured role for a defense that, aside from Ryan, lacked star power last season. Clark's name came up a lot.
"Playing last year and having a bigger role than my freshman year, it forced me to change my mindset," Clark said. "I've got a new set of goals. I've got things I know I've got to help my team out with a little bit more. I've got to be more of an impact player on the defense. I've got to help bring the defense together in the absence of one of our leaders, Jake Ryan.
"Whether it's working harder in the weight room or working harder on the field, I'm doing whatever I can do to help motivate the guys under me: Mario [Ojemudia], Taco [Charlton], the whole defensive line."
Thanks to Lewan, Clark had no trouble keeping track of his progress this spring. They went at it during team drills in workouts, and challenged each other in the weight room, even if they were in different lifting groups.
They competed to see who could do the heaviest set of squats, the top bench-press total and the most pull-ups. Clark didn't win each time, but his victories boosted his confidence.
"I say it to myself, I say it to my family and my friends back home," Clark said. "When you're going against the best offensive lineman in the nation -- and that's how I feel about Taylor -- there's nothing else in the world that can challenge you more. He's an All-American. He's somewhere I want to be, somewhere all my life that I dream to be.
"If I can put myself in that position, live up to expectations of what many people see me as, I know how much I can help my team out."
Mattison has made the pass rush a major priority after Michigan finished eighth in the Big Ten and 78th nationally in sacks last season with 22. The Wolverines lose end Craig Roh (four sacks) to graduation and Ryan (4.5 sacks) for at least the start of the season.
There's a bigger burden on players like Clark, Black, Ojemudia and Taco Charlton, a 6-6, 265-pound man-child who enrolled early and went through spring drills.
"He's grown up," Mattison said of Clark. "He's understanding that he has a responsibility to this defense because he is a veteran and he's played quite a bit of football, so his best performance is the only thing that's acceptable."
Mattison tells Clark that "potential is nothing." Those who live up to it separate themselves.
After last summer, Clark is ready to take that step.
"You can't make the same mistake twice," he said. "That's in life and on the field."
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