GREEN BAY – The computer screen was his classroom. Back in California, it was Kenny Clark’s primary means of communication with the happenings at 1265 Lombardi Ave.
Together with fellow Packers rookie Dean Lowry, Clark spent last spring’s organized team activities getting introduced to his new team and defensive line coach, Mike Trgovac, through a medley of Skype sessions and conference calls.
It wasn’t ideal, but it’s what was available due to a rule prohibiting rookies from participating in the offseason program until their school is out of session. In Clark’s case, that meant waiting until UCLA released for the summer to return to Green Bay and officially begin his NFL career.
A lot has changed since the online classes. Clark is now a veteran of 19 games (including playoffs), but at only 21 years old, he still has most of his development ahead of him.
When he returned to Green Bay in April for this year’s offseason program, Clark made it a point to get the most out of every rep, every lift and every second spent at Lambeau Field.
“It’s exciting. It’s like another spring ball in college,” Clark said. “I missed those reps last year in the springtime, so I’m just excited about every snap that I get here. Right now, practices are much slower and (we’re) getting a lot of time for them to really teach us things.”
Clark’s first NFL season was eye-opening. He didn’t turn 21 until last October, becoming the youngest Packers player to appear in a season opener since 1930 when future Pro Football Hall of Famer Arnie Herber took the field for the first time.
The first-round pick averaged roughly 24 snaps per game through the first 10 regular-season contests before seeing his workload dip against Philadelphia (13 snaps) and Washington (seven).
It was then Clark stepped back and reassessed his situation. If he wasn’t getting a full complement of reps in games, Clark made sure he maximized every snap in practice.
By the time the playoffs came around, Clark was back in the rotation. He averaged 26.3 snaps per game in the postseason, second on his unit to Pro Bowl alternate Mike Daniels.
“I was just playing better,” Clark said. “I messed up a lot on my footwork at times (early on). I was working on it and got a lot better over the season. At that time when I didn’t play as much, I took the time to take advantage of the reps I got in walkthroughs and on the practice field and tried my best to get better through the course of the season.”
Clark’s overall rookie season provided a glimpse into what he could give the Packers going forward. Despite his youth, he showed a lot of brute strength and agility en route to generating four pressures, three quarterback hits, two fumble recoveries and two passes defensed.
Clark stayed true to his previous offseason training regimen, returning home to San Bernardino, Calif., with an emphasis on developing more strength and explosiveness.
In focusing on his core and conditioning, Clark rededicated himself to his diet and dropped about 10 pounds from the end of last season. He reported back to Green Bay at around 310.
Clark’s coaches have noticed a difference in the young defensive tackle since he returned for the initial strength-and-conditioning phase of the offseason program in April.
“He’s crushing it in the weight room,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “That’s what you like to see, particularly in the second year with the science that’s involved in that where guys can really make a significant gain in this nine-week program. I look for Kenny to do a lot more as a football player on the field, but everything is better for him.”
The Packers don’t like to make any bold proclamations for young players this time of the year, but Clark and Lowry are two reasons they feel good about the future of their line.
It helps that Green Bay returns everyone from a unit that helped the defense finish eighth against the run in 2016. It also added veteran Ricky Jean Francois through free agency and Auburn’s Montravius Adams in the third round of the draft.
After a long introduction to the NFL, Clark has enjoyed the slower pace of his first full professional offseason. He felt good about how he ended his rookie campaign and now hopes to carry the momentum into his second pro season.
There’s no question in Clark’s mind the defensive tackle who steps onto the field this upcoming season will be light years ahead of where he was as a rookie.
“I feel more comfortable, for sure,” Clark said. “I feel a lot more confident about myself and the work I put in for this offseason. I’m just excited, honestly. That’s one of the main things. I’m extremely confident in my abilities and what I can bring to the table this year.”