Most 20 year olds are trying to survive college and figure out who they can get to buy them booze. Not Kenny Clark. The Packers Pro Bowl defensive tackle was drafted to the NFL at the age of 20. I couldn’t imagine the feeling of heading into an NFL locker room as a 20-year-old first round pick, so I asked Clark what he was feeling heading into the NFL:
“That was crazy. I don’t know. I left school a little bit early, but my whole life I have always been the youngest in my group. During football and wrestling growing up, I was always the youngest.”
You do not hear of many 300-pound high school wrestlers, so I was curious on how wrestling translated to his football career and if he still uses techniques from wrestling today.
“Yeah, my buddy was on the team freshman year and convinced me to come. I went to one practice. I didn’t like it, so I didn’t go back. Then he convinced me to go out again the next year. I went to my first tournament and got beat up pretty bad. That is pretty much what made me want to go back was how bad I got beat up. I think that was the biggest thing to help me in football. The mindset. I was 285 heavy weight, but the condition you are in pushes you. I was in a hot room and a big guy. I was constantly playing football at 300, but had to get to 285 for wrestling. A lot of times I was in a hot room, battling and getting after it. It definitely developed that mindset to keep going. The flexibility and knowing how to shift body weight. Grabbing offensive lineman to feel which way they are leaning, which direction they are going in, and how to maneuver their body.”
I know what everyone is wondering and yes I asked. Clark does not miss wearing the singlet. I asked if he still wears it for fun sometimes and he laughed while saying, “definitely not.”
Clark came to a defense with strong veterans like Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews and Mike Daniels. They have been around the game for a long time, and were leaders for the team. I asked Clark if anyone was a mentor to him when he first came to the team:
“Of course Mike D (Daniels), Ricky (Jean Francois), Peppers (Julius Peppers), Clay (Matthews) and Nick Perry were all tremendous leaders when I first got there. They play the game the right way. I mean in my room alone watching Mike D and the game he played. He taught me about the mindset you need to have to play the game. I bring Ricky up because part of me being successful in the league is the work I put in during the offseason. I really believe he helped me out with that. He would stay after OTA with me to work on things to take advantage of things to be successful.”
The theme of the 2019 NFL season for the Packers was that the Packers are in a new era. They had a first year head coach in Matt LaFleur, Brian Gutekunst was in his second year as GM and veterans like Clay Matthews and Mike Daniels were no longer in the green and gold. One familiar face on the defensive line was Clark. He needed to step up as the veteran presence on the defensive line at the young age of 24. I asked Clark about the transition into his new leadership role:
“It was good. I mean I just find the best way to lead is just being myself and the guys gravitate towards that. They appreciate and respect that. Just being myself and being able to speak up whenever I need to. I lead by example and lead by doing things the right way. I do the right things on and off the field and put in the work during the offseason. The guys watch and see that. They appreciate that. I’m well respected by the team, in the locker room, the coaches, and the front office guys. Whenever I do talk with guys, I think that’s what makes them listen. I don’t talk much, so when I do, I really have something to say.”
He isn’t the only leader on the defensive side of the ball. Aaron Rodgers was on the AJ Hawk podcast and talked about the leaders on the football team. He mentioned Za’Darius Smith came in as a vocal leader and Adrian Amos is a great leader by example. Clark had this to say when I asked what style of leadership he uses:
“I definitely lead more by action. I never really been a vocal guy. If something is going wrong, I’ll for sure say something, but every day I just go about my day. I am not very vocal in the whole group. I talk to guys one on one or a small group rather than the whole defense or whole team.”
Clark is a dominant force on the defensive line. PFF graded Clark as the highest rated pass rushing nose tackle. He gets to quarterbacks consistently and makes an impact every time he is on the field. Clark has put the quarterback on the ground 16.5 times since becoming a starter in 2017. I asked him what makes him such a dynamic pass rusher:
“I just don’t fall into the mentality of just being a nose tackle. I consider myself a nose tackle, but people view a nose tackle as 360 pounds, holding up two people, doing the dirty work, and setting everyone else up to make plays. That is part of the position, but playing with leverage, playing with hands, and being strong, you can accomplish the same thing at 310. I just put another ability to it by being able to rush. Center and Guards aren’t usually the main keys to pass protection most of the time. It’s a plus to the defense being able to rush from the inside. I just don’t fall into the mentality of ‘I’m just a nose tackle and I’m going to plug the gaps. Or if they pass the ball I’m just going to stand in front of the quarterback.’ I’m trying to get sacks and get to the quarterback.”
In 2018, Clark was a menace for opposing offenses without much help from the outside. He managed six sacks and eight tackles for loss. I was curious how Za’Darius and Preston Smith have impacted the defensive line:
“They are just two dynamic playmakers. They brought a new level of explosiveness to the defense. They both have great pass rushing ability. I was able to get pressure up the middle, and QB’s weren’t able to escape on the outside. We helped each other out with sack numbers, pressures, and QB hits. One of our best years at that.”
The Smith Bros. certainly helped the defensive line and the pass rush. They both had over 10 sacks last season, and were critical pieces in the overall improvement of the defense. However, they were not the only additions to the defensive line last season. The Packers used a first and fifth round pick to bring in Rashan Gary and Kingsley Keke respectively. Clark explained what is expected from those two young players going forward:
“Those two dudes have tremendous potential. I mean Rashan (Gary) is explosive. I love the way he plays. He plays like a mad man. In the run game he is knocking guys back, he plays strong with great hands and is explosive off the snap. I love the tempo and how hard he plays. Doesn’t matter if he messed up or is having a good game or a bad game. He is going to give you 1000%. And with Keke, he probably has the most ability in our locker room as a pass rusher. I am excited to see how he develops. The game slowed down for him last season and he has the talent to be a starter for the defense, The defensive line is going to have some good competition next year.”
Teams are always excited when there is competition in training camp. It will push their players to constantly improve and earn every snap they get on the field. The Packers will need players to step up to help slow down a run defense from last year that struggled at times. Clark will be a huge factor in stopping the run game, and I asked him what the defense needs to do to stop the run:
“Really just playing ball as we know how. We need to play fast and play physical. That is the first two points. That isn’t physically running fast, it is by mentally getting information. Knowing where the ball is going, knowing how they are blocking, and knowing how to react. Being physical at the point of attack and knocking guys back. Also communication. I feel that is where we struggled at times. There were games where we have guys bottled up the whole game, and someone gets a 40-yard gain and it skews the numbers. Now our run defense is horrible. Being able to be locked in every game and communicate will help us play our best football.”
As I mentioned earlier, the Packers are in a new era as a team. With new players, coaches and systems, they had a lot to adjust to. One huge difference fans saw in the Packers this past season was the family atmosphere the team had. Clark talked a little bit on how much he enjoyed this season and how the family feel was created:
“Definitely a change. Winning makes it fun for sure. Winning makes it a lot better. I honestly have been saying this all year, but I haven’t had this much fun playing football in the NFL since high school or the beginning year of college. Honestly last year, the bond we created and how excited we used to get for each other. The way we played with the guys on the defense. Jaire (Alexander), (Darnell) Savage, (Adrian) Amos, Kev (Kevin King). Everyone was together. We had fun and were happy for each other and what we did. It felt like we could win games by playing great defense. It brought us together. After games we chilled with each other. We talked about how we can win games, grow as players, and grow as people. It just developed our relationship on and off the field. It is what made us tough to score on.”
We started to end our conversation on lighter note. I couldn’t have a conversation with Clark and not bring up the video of him pulling a bus.
@KCBoutThatLife The best DT in the NFL @packers 30 day quarantine Lock down . Where did you decide to isolate yourself during the lock down ? @NFL @espn @nflnetwork @AroundTheNFL @UCLAFootball @ESPN_Esports @ESPNFC @NFLMedia #ContractYear #LivingQuarters #WinnerCircleAthletics pic.twitter.com/CiQLxeFRhB
— WinnerCircleAthletics (@WCA_Training) April 3, 2020
“I was working with all my guys at Winner Circle Athletics and they had a big bus out there. We just decided let’s pull this bus. We had a good workout going on, recording content and we said let’s just do it. I tried it and once I got it moving, I was able to get it rolling. I’m not going to lie, I was surprised with myself that I could do that. My arms and back were done after that.”
When asked if there was anyone that could pull a bus faster, Clark could only think of one player:
“Uh, the only person that has a shot at that is Tyler Lancaster. I mean he is one of the stronger guys. I don’t think he can pull it faster than me though. (Chuckles)”
Clark and I both have a plan to put him to the next level and put a few extra million on his next contract. Let’s just say if you know of anyone renting a plane for an hour, please let me know.
The final question I had for Clark was which NFC North quarterback was his favorite to sack. Before I even finished running through the list of NFC North quarterbacks, Clark cut me off with his answer:
“Cousins man. I’m not even going to let you finish. It is Cousins. My favorite team to play is the Vikings. I love playing up there and I love when they come to our stadium. Since my rookie year those games have always been close. Seems like our games determine a lot of stuff. Who is making the playoffs and all that kind of stuff. Definitely sacking Kirk Cousins.”
Clark has definitely been able to get his hands on Kirk Cousins. Since Cousins has joined the Vikings in 2018, Clark has sacked him four times. Exactly one sack per game.
Clark has been an amazing player, teammate and leader for the Packers since joining the team in 2016. He has shown growth every season and continues to put in the work to make another jump next year. All I have to say is Kirk Cousins watch out, and Packers, please pay this man.