GREEN BAY – Datone Jones called his shot two months before the Packers were even on the clock during this year’s NFL Draft.
The fourth-year pass rusher and UCLA alumnus doesn’t claim to be a scout, but he’s always seen something in fellow Bruin Kenny Clark and not been afraid to share it.
While their time at UCLA didn’t run together, Jones and Clark developed a close bond that started during the rookie defensive tackle’s recruiting process a few years ago.
Friendly texts and admiration culminated in Jones endorsing the 6-3, 314-pound Clark as a first-round prospect in the midst of the NFL scouting combine on Feb. 28.
“There are many special DL in this Draft class,” tweeted Jones, a first-round pick himself in 2013.
“But @KCBoutThatLife (Clark’s Twitter handle) has done enough to be drafted day 1. Hope the scouts don’t sleep on him.”
Ted Thompson certainly didn’t.
With several worthy prospects available on the defensive line at No. 27, the Packers’ general manager and his personnel department determined the 20-year-old Clark was a good fit.
Jones was elated. He and backup quarterback Brett Hundley, another UCLA alum, quickly linked up on FaceTime with Clark, sharing in their teammate’s exuberance.
The three traded texts and calls over the coming weeks, but weren’t able to get on the practice field together until the Packers held their minicamp June 14-16.
Since Clark hadn’t graduated, he had to head back to California following the Packers’ rookie orientation in May because UCLA operates under the quarter system.
Along with staying in communication with defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, Clark had conversations with Jones and Hundley that helped him get acclimated to Green Bay.
“They’ve helped a lot,” Clark said. “Just talking to them and getting to know what hurdles they had to step over and just learning what they did, so I don’t make the same mistake that they did. They’re doing a good job of just letting me know things and I’m just taking it all in.”
Jones is used to having at least one former Bruin on the roster. Shortly after the Packers drafted Jones 26th overall in 2013, they drafted UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round.
As natives to the Los Angeles area, Jones and Franklin chose the Bruins in an effort to promote their hometown. Together, they helped revitalize the Bruins’ football program.
The two were split up after their rookie seasons in Green Bay after Franklin sustained a career-ending neck injury. A year later, however, another former UCLA teammate joined Jones when the Packers traded up to take Hundley in the fifth round.
Jones felt fortunate to start his career with former teammates and close friends three years ago. Now, he’s happy to be in a position to help Clark in his transition.
“I was hyped, man,” Jones said. “I got his phone number and used to always talk to him. He’s a great player. He’s a really versatile player. I’m really excited and I’m really interested to see how our defensive line coach is going to use him and develop him. He’s a really good kid and he could be special.”
Clark had an interesting month after getting drafted. Unable to stay in Green Bay after rookie orientation, he flew home to train until UCLA let out and he could return to the Packers.
While he wasn’t taking classes, Clark continued to work out at the school’s facilities with a few teammates. Back home in San Bernardino, Clark spent time with former coaches and friends, gutting through at least one 5 a.m. mountain hike.
“I haven’t hiked in forever’” Clark laughed. “I went to go run it and I was just like, ‘Wow.’… It was a 5-mile hike so it was good cardio and it was good work for us.”
Jones said he planned to train with Clark back in Los Angeles once the Packers’ offseason program wrapped up June 16.
The five weeks between minicamp and the start of training camp on July 26 are important for both players, with Clark looking to get up to speed after missing a month and Jones learning a new position at outside linebacker.
Given their unique circumstances, Jones believes it’ll help to have a partner to review the playbook and trade ideas.
“At the end of the day, UCLA, we have a special brotherhood,” Jones said. “It’s great that I played defensive line, I know all the calls. I know what to do and all the different techniques. When I’m working on my stuff, he can be working on his stuff.”
Clark didn’t waste any time building relationships with the defensive line. He and fourth-round pick Dean Lowry, who also returned to Northwestern due to the quarters system, learned the scheme together during permitted calls with Trgovac.
Shortly after arriving, Clark broke the ice with fifth-year defensive lineman Mike Daniels, who’s provided insight into the aggressiveness and mindset required to thrive at the position.
Trgovac and Clark agree that the Packers might need the rookie defensive tackle to play a significant role on the line following B.J. Raji’s unexpected hiatus from football.
Still, Clark feels no added pressure. He’s confident in the work he’s put in over the past few months and the way the Packers have handled his development from afar.
It also doesn’t hurt to have a few close friends nearby to make him feel right at home.
“If he ever needs a place to stay, he can always stay at my house,” Jones joked. “I have a few extra bedrooms. He can always stay here, but he’s got a lot of money now.”