GREEN BAY - In the official game book from the Green Bay Packers’ loss to the Minnesota Vikings earlier this season, there is a running play in the first quarter for which the tackle is credited to defensive lineman Quinton Dial. The Vikings handed the ball to tailback Latavius Murray, and Dial stopped him after a gain of 2 yards.
On paper, the play itself is both ordinary and unremarkable, just another rushing attempt in a game in which the Vikings ran it 32 times. But on video, where nose tackle Kenny Clark is seen hurling center Pat Elflein to the turf and converging with Dial at the ball carrier, the sequence becomes a tad more interesting.
His dismissal of Elflein, a third-round pick earlier this year, was among a handful of eye-popping moments for Clark in what might have been his best performance as a professional. Though the Packers lost both the game and their starting quarterback, Clark was credited with a career-high six tackles (including one tackle for loss) and constantly hovered around the ball. He forced a fumble on tailback Jerick McKinnon and popped off his knees to halt another running play in the hole. Aggression and athleticism were wed.
“He’s explosive,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I mean, you look at his hands, the way he plays with leverage, he’s violent. I just like the way he separates and gets off blocks.”
Such displays have become something of the norm for Clark in his second season with the Packers. His playing time has spiked from 32 percent as a rookie to 74 percent through the first nine games of 2017. He already has surpassed his tackle total from all of last season, and the Packers finally have a worthy complement to defensive end Mike Daniels for the first time in years.
So where did Clark’s explosion come from? Ironically, everything started with a back injury during training camp last season.
“Everything was just spasmed up or something, I don’t know what it was,” Clark said. “That was probably like some of the worst pain because you can’t do nothing without your back. You can limp off with your knee. But your back or something, everything just shuts down.”
Clark injured his back on Aug. 22, 2016, while making his punch into the chest of a defensive lineman. He missed the remainder of training camp — including the final two exhibition games — and returned to play nine snaps in the regular-season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. But those three weeks in between were the origin of what has been a terrific start to the 2017 season.
Everything started with a self-evaluation. Clark said he used his recovery time to assess the first few months of his professional career, and the lack of explosion irked him. He could not separate from blockers the way he did in college, nor could he release as quickly off the ball. The reason?
“I felt like I was heavy,” Clark said.
The realization prompted Clark to reshape his body in an effort to recapture the dynamic movement he displayed in college at UCLA, the kind of ability that made him an eventual first-round pick by the Packers well before his 21st birthday.
He began in the weight room at Lambeau Field, where Clark said everything was built around strengthening his core. He had never missed a practice or game in his football career, so spending several weeks on the sideline was jarring. Targeting his core gave Clark something to do as the inflammation in his back subsided.
“That’s all I was focused on,” Clark said. “Even if it was after my workouts and we didn’t do any core, I was always doing core. Any time I’m in the weight room, I’m always doing something with my core, making sure I have good posture and stuff like that. I was really focused on getting my core right, making sure my back is aligned right, getting those bones and stuff right, then working on my glutes and trying to have my glutes be more explosive.”
Next he tackled the diet.
“I got like on a little plan during the offseason,” Clark said. “It wasn’t really so much the stuff I was eating, it was like getting more greens and eating smaller portions and stuff like that. I was thinking that if I lost a little bit of weight it would help out my back.”
Clark continued his progress by spending the offseason at Proactive Sports Performance in California, working with a personal trainer to further refine his body. As a rookie, Clark said his weight reached 320 pounds on certain days while the season average was a couple pounds less. It was heavier than he wanted to be, and Clark said he reported to Lambeau Field for the offseason workout program having lost “a lot of weight.” By OTAs he looked significantly stronger through the chest and shoulders.
Flash forward seven months and Clark is among the most valuable players on the Packers’ defense, clogging up the middle on a weekly basis. He has four games with 5 or more tackles in 2017 after peaking at 4 tackles in a single week last season. He tripled his tackle-for-loss total by the midway point of the year. He is on pace to exceed Daniels’ career-best mark of 67.8 percent playing time in a single season.
“You always see room for improvement, but I think he’s a really good young prospect,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “I’ve been pleased with his effort, been pleased with his play.”
And thankful, perhaps, that Clark aggravated his back.