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Versatility is a key trait that NFL rookies can use to carve out a niche for themselves early on in their careers. That shouldn’t be a problem for Northern Illinois’ Clint Ratkovich.
Ratkovich is a 6-foot-1, 228-pound offensive weapon who can play as a running back, fullback, H-back tight end and as a receiver out wide or in the slot. His versatility made him a two-time All-MVFC first team member at Western Illinois, and in his lone season at Northern Illinois, he finished with 15 touchdowns from scrimmage. Ratkovich’s power, fluidity, soft hands and quickness in space made him one of the biggest reasons the Huskies won the MAC in 2021.
In an exclusive interview with The Draft Wire, Ratkovich talked about what goes into his diverse skill-set, transferring as a graduate student, comparisons to Kyle Juszczyk, and more.
JI: You’ve been used in so many different alignments at both Northern Illinois and Western Illinois. What’s the key to being able to play well at a lot of different positions?
CR: I’d say the most important part is knowing the playbook. I feel like I take almost a quarterback role at that: knowing almost everyone on the offense is doing, because it kind of helps you understand…the scheme of the plays, and what’s really going on in the bigger picture, rather than just knowing one position. That’s what I feel is the biggest part that helps me out every other play.
JI: If you had to choose, what’s your favorite alignment you’ve lined up in?
CR: I’d say when we go into our heavier personnels on third, fourth-and-short, and I’m just lined up in a true running back spot running some downhill football, I’d say that’s my favorite.
(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
JI: You’ve had some major splash plays this year, like the 96-yard run against Western Michigan, and that OT game-winner against Buffalo. What does that adrenaline rush feel like after big plays like that, especially in this “super back” role?
CR: Oh, it’s amazing. You know, you start getting a glimpse back, take a little peek to see if anyone’s about to catch you, but at that point, it’s just all wheels from there. You just gotta keep chugging and hope for the best, but it’s an awesome experience.
JI: What went into your decision to transfer to NIU, and how did that process go for you?
CR: Yeah, so with the COVID year, it granted me that extra year, just like everyone else in the country, but that was kind of a unique situation, because it was my fifth year at Western, and I wasn’t technically graduated yet. I was graduated at the end of the year. The opportunity came when that happened, that I could be a grad transfer. I just started thinking about it, talking to my family. It just presented itself as an awesome situation, an opportunity to play a little bit up a level, and just try to compete against a little better competition on a bigger stage. That was that was the main part of it. It took a lot of time thinking about the decision, but I’d just say the opportunity presented itself, and I just took it.
JI: Would you say it was tougher to transfer somewhere as a grad student than it would be as an underclassman?
CR: I’d say it’s easier than a freshman coming in, because playing college football for five years, you kind of understand how everything works. You get there in the spring, it’s time to go to work. it’s always the winter conditioning up at 6 a.m., and a lot of freshmen – we had a lot of early enrollees – they’re really not used to it. It’s kind of like, being starstruck to them, but for an older guy who’s been through the ropes, it’s easier to get along. All the guys here have been great. It’s really family oriented. Everyone hangs out with everyone, so it’s been an easy fit.
Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports
JI: You recently accepted an invite to the Shrine Bowl, and got compared to Kyle Juszczyk by their Director of Football Ops, Eric Galko. What does it mean to you to be held in that regard from a national perspective, and do you know if you’re favored at one position over another at the next level?
CR: Just talking on Juszczyk, that’s an awesome comparison. I think the top fullback in the NFL. He kind of plays a similar role at the NFL level that I do now, so just having that comparison is awesome to have. Speaking to the next level, it’d be great to kind have the same role as he would. I wouldn’t complain at all. He does a lot of great things, and I feel like I bring a very similar skill-set. I can definitely see myself playing a similar similar role to him.
JI: Watching you on tape, you’re not just a good runner, but you’re also a good blocker. How have you been able to polish that skill-set out of the backfield?
CR: I’d say I was able to polish that a little bit of Western, because when I was there, I was used mostly as kind of an H-back. [I was] mostly thrown to; I didn’t really get as a running attempts at Western as I did at Northern. That’s where I worked on my blocking a lot on the perimeter. Those are the hardest blocks [to make]. It’s not that hard when you get a hold of a corner or a safety to make the block, but that’s the hardest part. Those guys are athletes in space, so just getting your hands on them is probably the hardest part.
JI: Which NFL players have you grown up idolizing?
CR: I don’t wanna say it because it’s kind of funny. We’re [rivals with] his old college, but I was a big Julian Edelman fan. Oh, yeah. He was a gritty player, played in Kent State as the quarterback there, and then he just took on the role with the Patriots just as a gritty, get-it-done type of guy. He’s a very hard worker, and I feel like he just did anything it took to get it done. He’s part of that really great franchise with the Patriots, the [Tom] Brady era. So I don’t want to say give it to Kent State, but I was always a big Edelman fan.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
JI: How do you like to spend your free time outside of football?
CR: I’m playing a little [Call of Duty] Warzone; the guys play a little bit. In-season, it’s almost like I haven’t played in what feels like months, but I play a little Xbox here and there. And then, I tried to take up golf. My buddy, [NIU quarterback] Rocky Lombardi, he’s my roommate. He’s basically a scratch golfer. It’s insane to watch him play. He just took it up just for fun, and I’m out there looking like an idiot sometimes trying to keep up with him. But it’s a fun time; I’ve been getting better. I hit a slump when we took some time off when football started, but I enjoy golfing.
JI: What’s your favorite golf course to play in Illinois?
CR: Honestly, Rocky always picks a different place, so every time we’re going, it’s almost a new course each weekend. He’s always going to be driving an hour away somewhere. He’s like, “Hey, we got to get a good deal on golf now. Let’s go and let’s ride,” so I’ve definitely experienced a lot. I’d say Prairie View is a good one. We’ve been there a few times. That’s a fun course to play.
JI: Are you more of an Xbox or PlayStation guy?
CR: Honestly, I’m PC now, but I always just call it Xbox. I’ve been Xbox my whole life, and I came to that crossroads where the Xbox One was getting old, and the new one was coming out. I also didn’t have a laptop for school coming to grad school, so I was at the crossroads: “Do I buy trying to get my hands on a new Xbox and pick up a MacBook, or do I just actually build my own PC?” I watched a bunch of videos on YouTube, I learned how to do it, and it was actually pretty simple to do, so I went with the middle road: just something that I can game a little bit on and also do my schoolwork.
JI: Let’s say I’m an NFL general manager. What would I be getting if I drafted you to my team?
CR: I’d say the hardest working guy you’re gonna meet. Like you said, I’m willing to do whatever it takes [to get on the field]. Put me on a corner, have me block him, [I’ll] do whatever you need to be put me in the backfield. Just the versatility I bring to the table, I feel like it’s something that can’t be matched. Someone like Kyle Juszczyk, who I’ve been told I play similar to, his versatility on the field is unmatched, and it’s something that gives defenses a lot of problems. Off the field. I feel like I do everything to the book. I almost got a 4.0 [GPA] – I’m trying to get it there, you know, grad school is a little tough – but I try to do everything by the book. On the field, it’s always 100% for me. You’re never going to get any less.