Kenny Clark was drafted in the first round by the Green Bay Packers to fill the void at nose tackle left by B.J. Raji.
What a bonus it would be if Clark could offer some pass rush, too.
Clark made big strides in that area at UCLA. After recording one sack as a true freshman and zero as a sophomore, Clark piled up six during his final season with the Bruins. Clark’s off to an excellent start during his first training camp with the Packers. In the one-on-one pass-rushing battles, a drill in which a .500 record is considered excellent for a defensive player, Clark is an astounding 8-1.
“I’m happy that I can see myself improving,” Clark said before Monday’s practice, at which point he was 5-0. “One of the huge things that I’m trying to work is flipping my hips. During this offseason when I had my time off because of school (and was not allowed to practice during OTAs), I was trying to flip my hips and doing a lot of workouts with my hips and trying to get that explosion out of my stance so I could become a better pass rusher. As far as the one-on-ones, I think I’m doing good but I don’t know about 5-0, though. In a game, if I miss on a move and I don’t up getting the sack, things like pushing the pocket are good, too.”
Clark’s game blossomed under the tutelage of UCLA’s esteemed defensive line coach, Angus McClure, who cranks out defensive linemen like Door County cranks out cherries. After the draft, McClure said Clark had “the best technique” of any defensive linemen he’d seen in a long time. Clark, even as just a 20-year-old rookie, is a student of the game, as well. When you pair technique, intelligence, athleticism and strength, it’s little wonder why the Packers chose him among a talented crop of defensive line prospects.
“Flipping my hips was a huge improvement in college working with Coach Angus,” Clark said. “I think knowing what’s going on, knowing the backfield set, studying more film as far as what type of protections. Coach Angus, he does a great job of giving us the overall report of what the opposing team likes to do if they’re in this formation or the back is on this side. What gap will be open if they slide this way or slide this way? Just knowing situations and knowing protection schemes and then adding that to having violent and quick hands and trying to flip my hips, those were huge things.”
To be sure, Clark has fattened up his record against second-tier blockers. When he went 3-1 on Monday, Clark won two reps against undrafted rookie Jacob Flores and one against veteran Don Barclay. The loss came against Matt Rotheram, who has been a major disappointment through the first week. In all, three of his eight wins have come against Flores and two have come against another undrafted rookie, Lucas Patrick, who is playing with a club-cast. However, he does have two wins against J.C. Tretter.
“He’s a good player,” Tretter said. “Good pad level, very good with his hands. You can see he’s picking it up quickly on the changes from college to pro ball.”
Picked it up so quickly that, on Tuesday, Clark moved into the No. 1 defensive line, taking the spot owned by Mike Pennel, who will be suspended for the first four games of the season. Starting in the base defense is critical, considering the lack of depth on the defensive line. However, that’s only a 15-snaps-per-game position. If Clark can show his pass rush can translate to Sundays, he’ll be in line for a lot more playing time in the team’s preferred nickel package.
“He’s got good size and strength but he’s got some quick twitch to him,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I think the closer you play in there, that quick twitch is important. He’s got some power to him. You can see when somebody blocks him that he’s got some strength and power. You add that with quickness, that’s normally a pretty good combination.”
With more than a month until the regular season begins at Jacksonville on Sept. 11, Clark isn’t worried about snap counts. His focus is internal.
“The only thing I can control is coming out there every day and working and trying to improve,” he said. “Every day, I’ve got to go out there and I’ve got to show the coaches that I can rush, show my teammates that I can rush and that they trust me to be in my rushing lanes. The coaches will make the decision from there. I’m just trying to get better at, honestly, everything. That’s my goal: Keep getting better every day and, by the end of this season, I want to be good. I want to be that guy that’s always improving. ‘Kenny’s always been that guy that’s improved from Day 1.’”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.