GREEN BAY – To understand just how far rookie receiver Michael Clark has come in less than a year’s time, listen to how he describes what it was like the first time he opened the Packers’ playbook.
“It was foreign. Just words,” Clark said. “All that stuff just flew past me. I couldn’t keep up in meetings. I found myself spacing out a lot and I couldn’t keep up at all.”
Yet here he is on Green Bay’s active roster, hoping in the 2017 finale at Detroit on Sunday to build on his first three NFL receptions from last week.
Clark can be forgiven for feeling lost at first. His path to the NFL is as unusual as it gets. The 6-6, 217-pounder played basketball at St. Francis (Pa.) University, thinking he’d eventually play pro hoops overseas.
But he decided to quit basketball and focus all his energies on football with the goal of making it to the NFL. He transferred to Marshall, sat out a year (getting to play only on the scout team), and then played 12 games of college football, catching 37 passes for 632 yards and five touchdowns.
With plenty of college eligibility remaining, he decided to turn pro, and the Packers signed him as an undrafted prospect in early May. “Raw” doesn’t begin to describe how he looked, but after catching four passes for 34 yards and a TD in the preseason, he wound up on the Packers’ practice squad after final cuts.
A scout-team player once again, and an obviously tough matchup due to his size and athleticism, Clark began opening some eyes the more familiar he became with the playbook and the game of football in general.
“There probably hasn’t been a Thursday practice where he hasn’t made a catch that’s been impressive,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said.
Clark eventually was signed to the active roster at the beginning of this month, a nice reward for all the hard work. His trajectory was similar to that of Geronimo Allison, an undrafted rookie a year ago who began on the practice squad but ended up making major contributions to the Packers’ stretch run.
Only Clark didn’t have two seasons of Big Ten football to his credit like Allison did at Illinois. He had an almost non-existent foundation for playing the game at this level, yet he kept getting noticed.
“There’s a lot of guys who have showed out on the practice squad,” said quarterback Brett Hundley, who was throwing passes to Clark on the scout team before Aaron Rodgers got injured. “You’re going against the first defense, so when you’re making plays there, you see, all right, this guy can make plays in the game.
“Michael Clark has been doing it all year.”
Upon activation to the 53-man roster, Clark didn’t play in the first three games but got the call this past week against Minnesota. His first catch was a 10-yard reception from Hundley in the fourth quarter.
On the very next play, he made a diving 19-yard grab near the Green Bay sideline for a first down in the red zone.
“It was just instinct,” Clark said of the standout catch. “You don’t think that play is going to happen. It just happens. But it’s showcasing that I can play.”
His debut also included a few plays he’d like to have back, though. Hundley went to him twice on back-shoulder throws against one-on-one coverage, both well-placed, but he was unable to haul them in. The second was near the front pylon of the end zone and would have been a touchdown.
“Every time the ball is thrown to me, I should catch it,” he said. “There should be no excuse.
“Me and Brett have a lot of chemistry, a lot of time together. He trusts me to throw me the ball, so I have to come down with it.”
That’s what Clark will try to do at Ford Field on Sunday as he wraps up a whirlwind of a rookie season.
He didn’t think to keep the ball from his first NFL catch, so he wants to get that first touchdown, giving him something to display next to his basketball medals and memorabilia.
Clark still has a long ways to go, but he appreciates what his coaches and teammates are saying about him. He also knows it puts more pressure on him to perform.
Sure beats where he was in the spring, though.
“The first day of camp, nothing stuck at all,” he said. “I’m pretty in tune with the offense now. I’m still getting better, learning football.”
He confessed he still doesn’t know what he can do, and he surprises himself sometimes. All the surprises so far have been good ones.
“Just a big dude,” Hundley said of what he likes about the young target. “He’s been busting his butt for the past year, and he’s developed, every day, every week.
“I can’t wait to see what he brings this week and also what he turns into next year.”