Packers first-round pick Lukas Van Ness is transitioning between positions as he starts NFL career

Kassidy Hill
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY − Lukas Van Ness had to catch himself, still not quite familiar using the words in conversation. 

“Coach Rebs is an awesome defensive line’s coach, excuse me,” he laughed, “a linebackers coach. Still getting used to that transition.”

At 6-foot-5, 272 pounds, the former Iowa defensive star is a bit of an enigma for the Green Bay Packers, wafting between a true defensive end, a traditional interior lineman and a powerful outside linebacker. But that's his appeal. So much so, the club used the No. 13 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft to take Van Ness, a guy who never started a game for the Hawkeyes. 

Rookie edge rusher Lukas Van Ness practices during Green Bay Packers rookie minicamp.

Typically, starters have set positions, traditional spots for opening and scripted plays. For someone like Van Ness, who can play a little bit everywhere, there is no traditional position at which to put him at the start of a game. So general manager Brian Gutekunst looked beyond those opening plays and instead studied the near-1,000 snaps Van Ness did play, accumulating 69 tackles and 13.5 sacks over two years. There, he saw the type of player that is needed in today’s NFL, and a complement to Preston Smith and (eventually) a recovering Rashan Gary. 

"I think versatility is one, right,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said after drafting Van Ness. “If you’re a little lighter outside, then you can't go inside. It's tougher to go inside. Certainly setting edges on first and second down is really important to us in run defense. So I think it's just kind of how we want to be built. His versatility helps that, but also this explosive nature where he can rush the passer.”

The Packers are counting on that versatility to ease what in most cases would be a seismic transition. 

“At Iowa, we ran a 4-3 defense versus, you know, in Green Bay, they run a 3-4. So this is very new system to me,” Van Ness said. “And I'm very excited.

“The way they are trying to utilize me, put me on the edge. You know, I think I could find a lot of success out there. But again, it's a learning process, it’s a learning curve. I'm excited to see where this progress can take me.”

Now, he’ll spend the next few months glued to “Coach Rebs,” pass rush specialist Jason Rebrovich. Beginning with rookie minicamp this week, Van Ness will make the transition from an outside defensive lineman to a full-time edge rusher who just so happens to have the ability to move inside when defensive coordinator Joe Barry wants to shake up a look or needs a substitution.  

Under Rebrovich's tutelage and with the ability to group Van Ness, Smith and Gary together, Green Bay could utilize its rookie in potentially a three-outside linebacker look, such as they did (sparingly, due to injury) with Smith, Gary and Za’Darius Smith. It’s something Gutekunst alluded to quickly after Van Ness was selected. 

“He’s a different player than Z (Za’Darius) was but he’s gonna be able to do a lot of the same things as far as using him inside,” Gutekunst said. 

Van Ness knew coming into the draft that this would be the likely path NFL teams would want him to take. He spent the past few months in California, training to do just that, shifting from the smash-mouth style that Iowa favored to what will be needed as an edge rusher in the NFL. 

“At Iowa, we were very power oriented. I've always had a lot of power (in) my game. I feel like that's the way I dominate,” Van Ness said. “But I'm just working on, you know, a whole tool bag of different moves, trying to expand my tool bag and just work on as much as possible."

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Kenny Clark was there in California, too, giving Van Ness a future teammate to watch and learn from, as well as Khalil Mack. If Van Ness can achieve a career mirroring either one, it’ll be everything the Packers could hope for from their first-round pick. 

“I just want to come in and learn as much as possible about the system and what it means to be a professional,” Van Ness said. “I'm just really excited to get into this phase of my life. And for me, I just want to come in every day and walk away and, you know, sit down at the end of the day and think that I learned something. And that's honestly the best way to improve.”

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