GREEN BAY – The texts started pouring into Kenny Clark’s phone not long before the Green Bay Packers went on the clock during Thursday night’s NFL Draft.
The sender was current Packers defensive end and fellow UCLA product Datone Jones, relaying a few excited words of encouragement to the 6-foot-3, 314-pound defensive tackle.
A few moments later, the Packers united the two Bruins in Green Bay when they drafted Clark with the 27th overall pick, making him the first defensive lineman they’ve drafted in the first round since taking Jones one spot earlier in 2013.
The two never played together but have known each other well since UCLA recruited Clark out of Carter (Calif.) High School in 2011.
As Jones moved to the NFL, Clark went on to register 164 tackles (20½ for a loss) and seven sacks in 39 career games for the Bruins, including 29 consecutive starts.
“It was crazy he just texted right before they picked me,” said Clark shortly after his selection. “He told me just to relax and just calm down. The Packers ended up picking me and it was just crazy.”
Clark, surrounded by a sea of family and friends in his hometown of San Bernardino, immediately helps fill a need at defensive tackle for the Packers after veteran B.J. Raji decided in March to step away from the NFL for at least one season.
While the re-signing of veteran Letroy Guion softens the blow of Raji’s departure, Clark gives the Packers a highly energized and motivated prospect on the depth chart.
Clark, who doesn’t turn 21 until October, finished second on UCLA’s entire defense with 75 tackles in 2015 during his true junior year. Furthermore, six of his seven career sacks came during his final season with the Bruins.
Those contributions can’t be overstated considering he spent most of his time lining up across from the center.
Despite his youth, Clark was voted a team captain during his true junior season and that maturity shined through when he interviewed with the Packers at the NFL scouting combine.
“I think he was able to get a lot of that maturity there at UCLA,” GM Ted Thompson said. “Just over the phone itself and certainly at the combine and interviews, he carries himself well and is articulate. He’ll stand up here and you’ll be impressed with him.”
Clark joins a lineage of Packers defensive linemen who have wrestling backgrounds, such as Mike Daniels and position coach Mike Trgovac, a former high-school state champion.
Clark, who was 12-1 on the mat during his senior year of high school, believes the experiences taught him proper leverage and bend. It also helped him understand the importance of endurance.
“I describe myself as physical,” Clark said. “I describe myself as having a lot of power. I’m one of those gritty guys. I’m going to stay in there and be stout. I believe in teamwork and I believe in leadership, and that’s one way you can have a great team. Show the guys I can do great things on the field.”
Clark will wear No. 97 for the Packers with first-year defensive lineman Christian Ringo moving to No. 99.
Having Jones and former UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley in the locker room should only aid his transition to the NFL and his immersion into the Packers’ locker room.
It’s been a long road to the NFL for Clark, whose relationship with his father, Kenny Sr., was well-documented during the lead-up to the draft.
While Clark wasn’t asked about it Thursday night, Kenny Sr. has been incarcerated in California since Kenny Jr. was 9 years old. The two have maintained a strong relationship.
His friends and family turned out in droves for his selection. His agent, Jerome Stanley, estimated that Clark had 300 people on-hand for the occasion.
Shortly after his selection, Clark and Jones FaceTimed with one another before he returned to his party.
“I have a good relationship with Datone; I have a good relationship with Brett,” Clark said. “I’m excited to be there. I’m excited to get started and start working out with the team.
“I’m going to bring the best Kenny Clark to the Packers that I can. I’m going to work hard and I’m going to do my job for the Packers.”