The Green Bay Packers were hungry for a starting defensive lineman, and general manager Ted Thompson was staring at a buffet.
As many as 10 were considered first-round possibilities by scouts. Eight of them were available for Thompson with the first pick.
Thompson chose Kenny Clark, referencing the UCLA standout’s “5-flat” 40-yard dash and “marvelous” workout at the Scouting Combine and the Bruins’ pro day. That athleticism was used to the Bruins’ advantage.
“We actually backed him off the ball an arm’s length and we’d use him in a two-point stance,” UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure said on Sunday. “Now, that’s a little bit unheard of to do that with a nose guard. I thought it showed a lot of NFL teams just how athletic he was for a big guy.”
McClure churns out defensive linemen in assembly line-like fashion but Clark was his gem. As a true freshman in 2013, Clark beat out senior Seali'I Epenesa, who was good enough to get a shot with the New England Patriots, “So, it’s not like he was just some guy,” McClure said. As a junior in 2015, he was a unanimous selection to be team captain.
“He’s an intrinsically motivated guy,” McClure said. “Right now, right away, I could tell he wanted to be the best. He impressed from the get-go at UCLA. Kenny came in and he’s like a sponge. He’s extremely coachable, he’s got a learning attitude, asks lots of questions, takes meticulous notes. You can just tell that football is really important to him. He flourished.”
Clark started the final 29 games of his three-year career. While he was second-team all-Pac-12 as a sophomore, it wasn’t until this past season when Clark’s career took off. After a combined total of one sack and 9.5 tackles for losses during his first two seasons, Clark piled up six sacks and 11 tackles for losses during his final season.
What made him so productive, considering he doesn’t have overwhelming height (at 6-foot-2 5/8, he was the second-shortest of the eight-best defensive linemen on the board) or length (at 32 1/8 inches, he had the shortest arms in that group)?
“Kenny, I’m telling you, he’s got the best technique of any defensive lineman that I’ve seen in a long time. He’s constantly working at his craft,” McClure said. “He does an excellent job of playing with leverage. Football is still, as Walter Camp said, it’s a game of leverage and angles. That much about football hasn’t changed in the last century. He has the ability to keep his pad level low. He’s extremely talented at using his hands. He’s got a bunch of different punches that we teach that he uses in his repertoire. He’s just able to bend at the hips and keep his knees bent and get underneath guys. Some of it comes from his wrestling background.”
As a high school senior, Clark was the conference champion in the heavyweight division. With a shorter stature and those wrestling roots, it’s little wonder why Clark said the Packers’ Mike Daniels is one of his favorite defensive linemen.
“Honestly, it’s just leverage — having leverage and being able to feel people out and how people are leaning toward you and feeling out their power, their momentum,” Clark said after being drafted on Thursday. “It’s having great hands. The biggest thing is being able to bend and have leverage. Another thing is having that mentality, that attack mentality that you’ve got to have. It’s a constant battle in wrestling. You get really tired. You have to battle through that when you’re wrestling and have that attack mentality.”
That was evident to McClure, with Clark using the lessons learned on the wrestling mat to hold up against the constant double-teaming that goes hand-in-hand with being a nose tackle.
“You can really tell when he’s in the trenches that he has unbelievable body balance, especially when he’s getting double-teamed,” McClure said. “He just has a knack for keeping leverage and attacking when he’s double-teamed and he’s able to keep his gap. That’s hard to do. He’s very consistent at that. Throughout his time at UCLA, he’s been able to take his technique to a higher level.”
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