GREEN BAY – Kenny Clark and Myles Jack probably will be connected for their entire careers not just by virtue of being UCLA teammates, early entries into the 2016 NFL draft and bright, young prospects for their respective teams.
Mostly, they’ll be compared because Jack could have been playing in Green Bay and Clark in Jacksonville if things had gone a little differently.
The Packers made the decision to pass on Jack — the most gifted linebacker, if not player, in the draft — because of concerns over his right knee. Healthy, he would have fit a glaring offseason need at inside linebacker and potentially made Green Bay’s defense one of the best in the NFL.
Instead, they drafted Clark with the 27th pick, filling another offseason need on the defensive line with a healthy, 20-year-old big man with lots of upside. Had the Packers taken Jack, it’s possible the Jaguars would have taken Clark with the 36th pick they used on Jack.
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Clark was one of the players they hosted on a pre-draft visit and would have filled a need they instead addressed in the third and fourth rounds.
“Myles Jack is one of the most phenomenal athletes to come out of UCLA,” linebacker Datone Jones said. “He’ll always be one of my UCLA brothers.
“But I’m (sticking) with my Packers brother; Kenny’s going to be a force. He’s a special player. They’re both special. They came in together and I’m looking forward to a good show from both of them.”
Clark and Jack will be on opposite sidelines when the Packers and Jaguars open their season at EverBank Field at noon Sunday.
“I’m going to be standing up when we’re supposed to be sitting down watching Myles,” Jones said jokingly. Neither rookie will be in the starting lineup, but both are expected to play.
Clark understands how fans could have wanted the Packers to draft Jack. He said he never considered his ex-teammate’s injury an issue and said from what he saw of Jack in the exhibition season, he’s the same guy he played with at UCLA.
“He never was behind,” Clark said when asked if Jack looked like he was back from the knee injury. “Myles, people need to understand that during that time, he’s a heckuva athlete. He’s a great player, simple as that. He’s one of the most athletic people I’ve seen in my life.
“Stuff he did in the game, stuff he did, half of it y’all didn’t see because he did so much in practice. He’s smart. He’s a great linebacker. He’s going to be just fine. He’s going to hit the ground running. I don’t know about his knee, but he looked fine out there to me when I saw him playing.”
The 6-1, 245-pound Jack was the Pac-12’s freshman of the year on both offense and defense after splitting time at linebacker and running back. He was all-conference at linebacker his second year when his knack for making splashy plays drew national attention.
Last season during a Sept. 22 practice, however, he tore the meniscus in his right knee and was lost for the season. Two weeks later, Jack dropped out of school and declared he was going to enter the NFL draft.
Clark, a co-captain, finished out his junior year playing all 13 games, compiling 73 tackles, including 10.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks and five passes broken up. On Dec. 28, Clark declared his intention to go pro.
“My decision was based on my two years work and how I did and I’m pretty sure his was, too,” Clark said of Jack. “He did his job to the best of his ability. He did what he had to do. He did everything he could for UCLA. They appreciate us for that.
“Everybody understood, our teammates understood. Plus, we had so many great players. We had six or seven guys leave early. We were stacked. Coach (Jim) Mora did a good job recruiting us. Yeah, he wanted to keep us there, he tried his best to keep us there.”
Jack, whose draft status was affected by the fact he might need micro-fracture surgery to promote meniscus growth in his knee, doesn’t blame the Packers for taking Clark.
“Kenny Clark was a fantastic player for us,” Jack told the Florida Times-Union. “I’d say he was one of the better players on our team, if not the best. Interior-wise, he ate up both ‘A’ gaps and could really two-gap everything.
“Kenny was ‘the guy.’ A very dominant player. It’s going to be cool playing against him.”
As great as Jack’s potential is, Clark might face more pressure to perform. He was considered a borderline first-round pick and the Packers’ decision to pass on Jack and put their faith in him will be remembered for a long time.
What’s more, Jack isn’t the Jaguars’ first-round pick — cornerback Jalen Ramsey was taken at No. 5 — and his knee trouble will always be considered when evaluating his career.
It doesn’t help Clark that the Packers desperately need him to come through this season. After nose tackle B.J. Raji retired and defensive end Mike Pennel was suspended four games, general manager Ted Thompson was forced to address needs at the defensive line position.
He drafted Clark in the first round and Northwestern’s Dean Lowry in the fourth round to help bolster the numbers. But Lowry isn’t as gifted as Clark and doesn’t have any experience playing inside, increasing the need for Clark to carry his weight right off the bat.
“I’m excited to watch Kenny,” Jones said. “Even the guys during training camp, Mike Daniels, he was saying this guy is special. ‘You can be as good as you want to be,” (he said). He’s surprisingly athletic because you think he’s just a big (body), which he is, but he’s a faster, athletic (body). Those guys you hardly see come around.
“I know guys like myself and Mike Daniels and the rest of the guys are going to push him where he needs to be.”
Clark said he is completely recovered from the back injury that sidelined him the final two weeks of camp and resulted in him playing just 39 snaps in the exhibition season. How much he’ll be able to add against the Jaguars is anybody’s guess, but he’s going to have to be part of the rotation.
Jones said the most important thing is that he tune out pressure from external sources and play his game.
“End of day, people are going to say what they’re going to say,” Jones said. “Only thing that matters is winning football games for the Packers and balling for your brothers in this locker room.
“That’s the only thing I told him, ‘When I was younger I used to think of the all the stuff that came with it, being a first-round pick, and I was thinking of all that. Let it go now. I’m going to tell you let it go now, it’s out of the window. It’s on to bigger things.’”