GREEN BAY — In a season marked by so many disappointments — and set to mercifully end after Sunday’s regular-season finale at Detroit — Kenny Clark has been a welcome bright spot for the Green Bay Packers.
But even the Packers second-year defensive tackle’s impressive season comes with a frustrating what-if: What if he hadn’t suffered an ankle injury Nov. 19 against Baltimore?
“Kenny came out of the blocks playing good football this year, probably building off how he finished last year,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of the team’s 2016 first-round draft pick, who left that game against the Ravens on a cart, then missed the following week’s game at Pittsburgh. “He just had the setback there against Baltimore, and it took him a game or two to get back to playing at the level he played at.
“I thought Kenny was really playing extremely well until he had the injury in Baltimore, missed a game and just kind of fought his way back. But we talk about the second-year jump and that’s a great example of it. Kenny’s having a heck of a year.”
Since getting healthy, Clark has been the Packers’ best player on defense. Starting with his return to the lineup Dec. 3 against Tampa Bay, Clark has 4.5 sacks, 21 tackles and a forced fumble. In last week’s loss to Minnesota, Clark registered two sacks on Vikings quarterback Case Keenum, along with five tackles (two solo). He enters Sunday’s finale with 74 tackles (36 solo), eight tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, 11 quarterback hits, 10 QB pressures and a pass breakup.
Playing in all 16 games with two starts as a rookie last year, Clark had 33 tackles (14 solo), two tackles for a loss, no sacks, four QB pressures, three QB hits, two fumble recoveries and two pass breakups.
“I think if he continues to do what he’s doing, and have the attitude that he has, I think he’s a very bright future. I think that’s one of the most positive things about him, is the way he approaches his job,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “I think he really wants to be good. I don’t want to put undue expectations on him, but he is definitely on the right path, and he has the right work ethic for him to move forward and be the type of player he can be.
“I think he’s done a great job with his pass rush, because he didn’t have a lot of that when he first came here. He didn’t have a lot of that at UCLA, but I think he’s done a great job with his pass rush, getting better and really working.”
And working is what Clark does. While the Packers had nothing to play for against the Vikings, no one could have accused Clark of not playing hard.
“I mean, that’s just me. If I’m going to go out and play a football game, I’m going to play it hard,” Clark said. “That’s why the drafted me: my motor, my style of play, how I play. I think that’s why they drafted me here.”
The Packers also love how much potential he still has. Only 22 years old, Clark is the youngest player on the Packers roster — last season, at age 20 on opening day, he was the youngest player to start a season with the Packers since Arnie Herber in 2930 — but has already emerged as one of the more respected voices on defense. And he’s certainly caught the attention of the older players.
“I like the kid, man,” said veteran cornerback Davon House. “The kid’s young, he’s good and he’s hungry. And he wants to get better.”
Early in the season, before his ankle injury, Clark showed flashes of what was to come, but he grew frustrated when his effort didn’t lead to statistical production. House, for instance, was stunned during the Buccaneers game when he learned Clark had zero career sacks before taking down Jameis Winston in that game.
“It was irritating, because I knew I was so close,” Clark said. “A couple of times, the Baltimore game I was close, and I was like, ‘Man, the ball’s getting out’ and stuff like that. There’d be times where I had people on their heels and I made a great move.
“There was a play against the Bears I had (Mitchell) Trubisky in my hands and I had the offensive lineman still on me and kind of slipped off of him. There were a couple of plays where I was like, ‘Man, I’m so close to getting that sack.’ It finally opened up for me.”
And now, Clark says, he believes the “sky is the limit” for him. Along with inside linebacker Blake Martinez and fellow defensive lineman Dean Lowry, Clark has given the Packers reason to believe they have young talent on defense that could lift the team’s level of play on that side of the ball after years of mediocrity. And Clark could lead that charge.
“Throughout the year, I think Kenny’s pass rush has been really improving each week,” Lowry said. “He’s just a dangerous player and I think more and more people are starting to recognize the type of player he is. He’s not just a run-stopping nose tackle. He can pass rush at three-technique, he can do a lot of different things. He has a bright future.”