GREEN BAY - Kenny Clark had one sack in his first two seasons at UCLA. None as a sophomore. This was not the expectation for a future NFL defensive lineman, and Clark knew it.
So before his junior season with the Bruins, Clark went to work. He studied the game like a student. Learned how to use his hands against blockers. Mastered his bull rush. He modeled himself after Detroit’s Haloti Ngata and Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins, interior pass rushers who blend quickness with power.
By the time last season started, Clark was a different player.
“I had better use of hands last year,” Clark said. “Honestly, I took more advantage of the one-on-ones, and I took more advantage of the mishaps that the offensive line had. I studied offensive linemen, and I studied protections a lot my last year with my defensive line coach.
“That was one of the biggest things to me, to understand pass-rush lanes, where I’m supposed to be at, and how the quarterback will fall into my lap.”
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Opposing quarterbacks fell into his lap much more frequently last season. Clark’s extra work led to 6 sacks as a junior, including three in one game against Washington State. His 11 tackles for loss were more than half the 20 he had in three seasons. He hit the quarterback three more times and had 31 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
Clark showed flashes of a dominant interior pass rusher, something Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson hopes his new defensive lineman brings from Hollywood to the NFL. The Packers drafted Clark with the 27th overall pick in the first round Thursday night, eschewing what appeared to be many other viable options.
It’s the first piece in what could be a rebuilding of the Packers defensive line. With B.J. Raji retired and Mike Pennel serving a four-game suspension to start next season, Clark will have an early opportunity to earn a starting job. Clark could complement defensive end Mike Daniels to bolster the Packers interior pass rush, which could make the NFL’s ninth-best third-down defense in 2015 even better next season.
“I think there’s been a lot said about his pass rushing,” general manager Ted Thompson said. “There wasn’t a lot of numbers there until this past year, but I think this past year he showed that he’s got that kind of ability and quickness. Always been a good run player.”
Yes, Clark is stout against the run. His newfound pass rush provides positional versatility. Clark said he can line up at nose tackle, filling a void Raji left in his departure. He has the quickness to play five-technique defensive end, but his 32⅛-inch arms will be prohibitive.
Thompson said he expects Clark will line up in multiple spots on the Packers defensive line. The Packers GM was clearly intrigued with Clark’s athleticism. At 6-foot-3 and 314 pounds, Clark ran a 5.06-second, 40-yard dash with a 1.72-second, 10-yard split at the NFL scouting combine in February.
Then there’s the hand use. Clark, a former high school wrestler, has a chance to beat blockers with more than a good bull rush. Thompson said Clark’s technique and leverage is noticeable on film. Yes, the extra work last offseason helped Clark crack the first round.
“He’s very talented at that,” Thompson said. “He’s got a really strong base. He’s not easily moved. He’s a 5-flat 40 guy at 315 pounds. He had a marvelous workout at Indianapolis, and at Los Angeles at school. I know all the teams do exactly the same thing after this first day, but we feel good that we were able to do what we did today.”
Thompson again played his cards close to the vest during the pre-draft process. Clark said he interviewed with the Packers once at the combine, but that was it. No trips to Green Bay. No private workouts. Thompson didn’t even attend UCLA’s pro day, he said.
Discreetness allowed Thompson to surprise many who had followed the draft over the past couple months, especially with how the first round unfolded. When the Packers were on the clock with the 27th overall pick, it seemed Thompson had plenty of options to sift through. Alabama defensive end A’Shawn Robinson and defensive tackle Jarran Reed were available. So was UCLA’s Myles Jack and Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, off-ball linebackers who theoretically could have returned Clay Matthews to outside linebacker.
Clark was Thompson’s choice all along. Thompson admitted he wasn’t sure Clark would be available at the 27th overall slot, noteworthy only because of how the draft unfolded. Staying true to his gut, the benefits could be significant. Clark, a defensive captain at UCLA, won’t turn 21 years old until October. His youth gives the Packers a player they can mold.
“I think we all wish we were 19 or 20 years old or whatever it is he is,” Thompson said. “No, I think he’s excited about being in the NFL. A lot of this is just based on my conversation with him. He’s excited about being in the NFL. He’s dying to show us that this was a good pick and he’s a good player, and he’s going to have a good career and the whole thing. So we’re looking forward to him taking on those challenges.”
Green Bay is becoming the new Hollywood. Thompson has drafted a UCLA player each of the past three years, twice in the first round. It was Datone Jones in 2013. Thompson traded up to take backup quarterback Brett Hundley in the fifth round last year.
Clark said he isn’t worried about the climatic change he’ll experience this winter. If nothing else, familiarity should make him more comfortable. Clark said he has known Jones since his senior year of high school. Jones texted him before the Packers were on the clock Thursday, not knowing the two were about to be teammates.
Soon after the Packers drafted Clark, he got a call from Jones.
“I just Facetimed him a couple minutes ago,” Clark said, “and he was saying how happy he was for me and he’s excited to play with me. And Brett called me and told me that it’s a big season ahead of us, and be ready to work. I’m excited for it. I’m excited that I got those calls from my former teammates, and just them saying it’s time to get to work now. That just shows the leadership they have on that team. You just know that those guys are ready to work.”