GREEN BAY — When the season began in Jacksonville two weeks ago, the novelty of the National Football League had not yet worn off for rookie nose tackle Kenny Clark.
A first-round pick by the Green Bay Packers, Clark played sparingly during the exhibition season after experiencing tightness in his back. He stayed home when the Packers played the San Francisco 49ers in their third exhibition game. He traveled to Kansas City for the finale but did not play.
So on a steamy afternoon at EverBank Field, the 20-year-old rookie soaked in the scenery of his professional debut. The Jaguars stood on the opposite sideline, and Clark was in awe of the career he chose.
“I just feel like from preseason games to Jacksonville I was just so excited and ready to go,” Clark said. “But I was still kind of like, ‘Man, I’m in the NFL.’ I was kind of feeling it out, feeling out the games too much.”
He remembers his first snap against the Jaguars, a first-and-10 play with 5:04 remaining in the opening quarter. The Jaguars threw a screen to Marcedes Lewis, another UCLA alum, and the big tight end rumbled down the sideline for 37 yards, breaking tackles as he went.
“When a D-lineman sees a screen, that automatically wants you to kind of back off,” Clark said. “I feel like I needed to have that attack mentality now and come out striking and not feel anybody out. Throughout that game I settled in, felt a lot better, felt a lot more comfortable out there, made a couple plays.”
As the Packers transitioned to Week 2, Clark said he made a concerted effort to constrict his boyish glee. He poured more effort into his preparation for the Minnesota Vikings — more film study, more questions, more time in the playbook — and mimicked the routines of veterans around him.
Starter Letroy Guion left injured after eight snaps, and Clark’s approach was put to the test. He played 38 of a possible 58 snaps against the Vikings, anchoring the defensive line alongside Mike Daniels. His response was eye-catching.
“I had been telling myself all last week that I needed to really turn myself on and really just get my head mentally into the game,” Clark said. “That whole last week of preparation, I just wanted to start off attacking from the first play to the last. I got a lot of good film that day. I saw tremendous strides from preseason and the Jacksonville game to that game. I’m excited for everything and the way things are going so far.”
For the first time, Clark flashed the ability that warranted a first-round grade from the Packers’ scouting department.
His athleticism caused problems for the Vikings’ offensive line, a weak group that was mauled repeatedly by Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, Clay Matthews and Daniels, among others. He shed a block and stormed into the backfield to disrupt a play that went for negative yards. He extended an arm to deflect a pass. He took reps as an inside rusher in sub packages and as a pure nose tackle in the base defense, just as general manager Ted Thompson would have hoped.
For a rookie, it approached a complete performance.
“It was a blessing to get 35 or however many reps I got,” Clark said. “I’ve got to just keep working and striving to be a great player in this league. Hopefully more snaps will come. I’m just trying to work and play my part and play my role on this team.”
The injury to Guion may catapult Clark into a larger role as early as this weekend, when the Detroit Lions travel to Lambeau Field. With Mike Pennel serving the third of his four-game suspension, Clark is the obvious choice if Guion is unable to go.
And if he remembered his first snap, Clark will certainly remember his first start.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “I want to start. But at the end of the day we’ve got to do whatever is best for this team. Whatever that is, I’m all ready for it. I’m just excited. I know I keep saying this, but I’m excited to be here and be playing with these guys and contribute to this team.”