Former Taylor star Clemons on verge of NFL dream

Rodney Clemons shown during a game for SMU last season. (Photo Courtesy of SMU Athletics)

BY DENNIS SILVA II | densilva2@gmail.com

During his first spring football practice as head coach of Taylor High in 2014, Trey Herrmann remembers hearing an abrasive crunch of physical contact.

“I didn’t see the hit,” Herrmann recalled six years later. “I heard it.”

Herrmann turned around to see then-junior Rodney Clemons getting back up off the running back.

“I said, ‘Yep, I was right,’” Herrmann said. “‘That’s my starting safety right there.’”

Just a couple of months before, Herrmann had convinced Clemons, frustrated and done with football after two years of hardly seeing the field, to not hang up the cleats just yet.

“I was at a junior varsity basketball game, sitting next to (then-school principal) Mr. (Jeff) Stocks, and I saw Rodney,” Herrmann said. “Just the way he moved on the floor, as far as his footwork and ability to be around the ball at all times. I asked Mr. Stocks, ‘Hey, who’s that kid?’ ‘That’s Rodney Clemons.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s my starting safety right there.’ He just had all the attributes I look for in a safety.”

So goes the beginning of a wonderous story for Clemons, a 6-foot, 209-pound safety out of SMU who is expected to go anywhere in the fifth through seventh rounds of the NFL Draft this weekend. The draft, which will be held over three days, will be aired on ESPN. Round one will be held Thursday, rounds two and three on Friday, and the last four rounds on Saturday.

Clemons, who was primarily a receiver through his first three years of high school, played safety for the first time that senior year under Herrmann. He helped lead the previously moribund Mustangs to eight wins and an area round playoff appearance that fall of 2014. Clemons was an all-state selection as a defensive back and punter. He had 111 total tackles, five interceptions and played every snap—defense, offense and special teams.

That 12-game season, and the critical few months prior to it, paved way to now. Clemons hopes to join quarterback Andy Dalton (Katy High/Cincinnati Bengals), running back Rodney Anderson (Katy High/Cincinnati Bengals), defensive lineman Danielle Hunter (Morton Ranch/Minnesota Vikings), offensive lineman Caleb Benenoch (Seven Lakes High/Detroit Lions) and fullback Cullen Gillaspia (Taylor High/Houston Texans) as Katy ISD products currently in the NFL.

“When I was a kid, like every kid, you always dream of making it to the NFL,” said Clemons, who has been working out in Dallas but will come back home to Katy to enjoy a fish fry and watch the draft with his father Rodney Sr. and mother Tammy. “But you get older and reality kind of sets in; you might have to get a job and start sending applications for college. It doesn’t work out for everybody.

“But I had a really good senior year of high school, got the offers that I got and ended up going to SMU. I made the best of the opportunity I had. The NFL was always a dream of mine, but it kind of came back into fruition as a senior in high school.”

‘HE JUST KNOWS THE GAME’

“He’s always been a sports guy,” Rodney Clemons Sr. said of his son. “The first ball he picked up was a football. When he was younger, he was a pure athlete—he played baseball, which he was very good at. Basketball, football. He started playing football when we moved to Katy, and it’s been football ever since.”

The Clemons family lived on the west side of Houston before moving to Katy when Clemons was in the fifth grade. Clemons, who was coached by Rodney Sr. in Katy Youth Football, playing for the Packers as a quarterback and cornerback, attended Rylander Elementary and Cinco Ranch Junior High.

Clemons spent his freshman year at Cinco Ranch High before transferring to Taylor. That’s where he initially lost his love for the game.

“He was on the team his sophomore and junior years, but the coaches wouldn’t play him,” Rodney Sr. said. “The coaches had their favorites. He got kind of hurt by that and decided he wasn’t going to play as a senior.”

Clemons was content to play basketball and quit football before Herrmann arrived. But Herrmann saw something in Clemons at that JV basketball game. Clemons showed great feet and good hips. He moved with ease. He was smart on the floor.

After the game. Herrmann went up to Clemons and asked him about football. Clemons said it hadn’t been fun for him.

“I told him I had a position for him that I think he’d really like,” Herrmann said. He asked Clemons to come over to football after the basketball season and give spring ball a try.

“Fortunately enough, Coach Herrmann came in,” Rodney Sr. said. “The rest was history.”

Clemons’ physical ability proved Herrmann’s initial evaluation right. But, most importantly, Clemons did not shy away from work.

When Clemons wasn’t in the weight room for extra reps in the mornings or after school, he was on the track running or on the field doing footwork drills on his own. The no-nonsense mentality was a sign of things to come.

When the Mustangs forced teams into third-and-long situations during the season, Herrmann played a Cover 1 defense (when one defensive back, in this case Clemons, is assigned to play back, roam and cover all quarters of the field as everybody else plays man-to-man) because Clemons had the ability to play from the middle of the field all the way to each sideline, a job he took pride in because it showed his coach’s and team’s trust in him.

“He always had that desire for a little bit more,” Herrmann said. “The safety, for me, has always been a leadership position. He always had it.”

Clemons has always had a natural feel for football. When he was in third or fourth grade, Rodney Sr. said, Clemons stole sheets of paper from the printer, stapled them, and drew up his own plays, soaking in inspiration as he played his PlayStation.

“He just knows the game,” Rodney Sr. said.

As a two-star recruit out of high school, Clemons only received three scholarship offers to play football in college, and only two from FBS schools. He chose SMU, where he ended up starting all four years and was a team captain for his 2019 senior season.

Rodney Sr. is convinced more college doors would have opened for his son had things worked out better his sophomore and junior years.

“He was underrecruited because they didn’t play him for two years,” Rodney Sr. said. “But all things work out for the best.” Herrmann, now the head football coach at Danbury High, helped Clemons rekindle his love for the game.

“I just think, every once in a while, someone needs a word of encouragement or a different path or a nudge in a particular direction, but it ultimately comes down to them,” Herrmann said. “What he did with that separates him. There are millions of kids across the United States that dream of playing college football, let alone professional football. It’s the ones that are able to take the opportunities they get and make the most of it that are the ones we get to watch play on Saturday or Sunday. He’s that kid.”

Rodney Clemons. (Photo courtesy of SMU Athletics).

‘HE’S A WINNER’

The past six weeks have been frustrating for Clemons.

There has been a lack of resources due to the shutdown because of precautions for the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, and Clemons is limited in his training.

Clemons wakes up around 10 a.m., makes breakfast or lunch, and around 2 p.m. heads to the SMU stadium to run the hilltop and bleachers. Then he returns home to do pushups and sit-ups with his roommate.

“There’s not really a weight room around here, so you’ve got to find or make up things,” Clemons said.

Clemons works mostly on conditioning and with a position coach on footwork. He studies film to get acquainted with the playbook of NFL teams.

“It’s so weird to have makeshift workouts and not have the resources you typically have,” he said. “You feel like you’re a step behind, but then you realize everybody else is going through the same thing. I’m ready for it to be over, but everybody’s safety is most important.”

Clemons performed at the NFL Scouting Combine in February in Indianapolis but did not have a Pro Day (when the NFL allows scouts to visit individual schools for workouts), as SMU’s was canceled because of COVID-19. Clemons’ tests from the combine read as follows: 31 ¼” arms; 9 ¼” hands, a 4.71-second 40-yard dash, a bench press of 21 reps, a 33.5-inch vertical and a broad jump of 118 inches.

He is fine with all of those numbers, except for the 40-yard dash. It was the second-slowest time of all defensive backs at the draft. He planned to make up for it at the pro day before it got canceled.

“That’s a big thing teams look at,” Clemons said. “If I could’ve gone down two-tenths of a second more, that probably would’ve put me in a different position than I’m at right now. But I’m not down about it or anything. I’m just happy to be in this position and be in the conversation of being drafted. Everything happens for a reason.”

NFL.com’s overview of Clemons as a draft prospect reads: “Four-year starter and team captain who got a late start in the sport, but has made up ground quickly. Clemons plays with hip tightness that limits fluidity and transition quickness in coverage. What he lacks in fluidity, he makes up for with pattern matching and ball skills. He has the versatility for man coverage as a big nickel, run support as a down safety and two-high safety duties if he can develop his recognition and instincts a bit. He’s not there yet, but it’s also unlikely that he’s a finished product. There are some physical limitations present, but with additional work, Clemons could find a roster spot.”

Most draft analysts have Clemons predicted as a late-round draft pick. Others, like The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, have him as a “primary free agent,” meaning he goes undrafted.

Some draft websites said Clemons has the potential to be one of the hidden gems in the draft.

“Exciting, nervous, anxiety. It’s a bit of all of those,” Rodney Sr. said. “You just don’t know. It’s the unknown.”

When Herrmann attended the Lone Star coaching clinic earlier this year, he was impressed that the SMU defensive backs coach was using Clemons’ practice film as a teaching point. In just his fifth year of playing safety, Clemons had worked on his craft so well that his technique was an example of what playing the position should look like.

In 2019, Clemons was a second-team All-American Athletic Conference selection with 78 total tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a blocked kick, and a team-high four interceptions and nine pass breakups for the 10-3 Mustangs.

“He’s a winner,” Herrmann said. “That’s an intangible you can’t measure at a combine or just watching his film. His personality and his drive will lead him to win. Whichever organization is lucky enough to get him, he’s going to bring that.”

Clemons said he has talked to 25 of the 32 NFL teams. He has FaceTimed with 10 of those 25 teams. He cannot pinpoint which franchise has shown the most interest.

“They’re all kind of the same,” Clemons said. “You don’t really know what’s on their draft board. If they call you, they’re interested to some degree.”

But he also couldn’t care less where he is drafted or what team he plays for. Clemons only wants a situation where he can compete for a starting position and play right away.

“If I get picked or go undrafted, getting signed is the main thing,” Clemons said. “I’ll be happy wherever I go. I’ve thought about that call and I hope it happens, being able to put a team’s hat on. Not many guys get this opportunity.”

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