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'Hercules' Lukas Van Ness brings power, versatility to Packers' defensive front

First-round pick evolved into a complete pass rusher at Iowa

LB Lukas Van Ness
LB Lukas Van Ness

GREEN BAY – Lukas Van Ness' meteoric rise reached a satisfying crescendo on Thursday night.

The Iowa pass rusher's 2½-year transformation from a lean 220-pound defensive lineman to a 6-foot-5, 272-pound physical specimen affectionately known as "Hercules" culminated in the Packers drafting Van Ness with the 13th pick in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft.

Arriving in Iowa City during the heart of the COVID pandemic, Van Ness put his redshirt freshman year to good use while adding 60 pounds to his long frame during his first year in Iowa City.

The weight-gaining process proved to be rather seamless for Van Ness, leading to successful campaigns at both defensive tackle (33 tackles and seven sacks as a freshman) and defensive end (38 tackles and 6½ sacks as a sophomore).

Tests confirmed his prodigious athletic traits, as Van Ness ran a 4.58 in the 40-yard dash with a 1.64 10-yard split at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.

"I just came in as a long, tall, lanky kid who had the frame and the ability once I got in the right program to grow and develop," said Van Ness, who watched the draft with family at his parents' home in Fontana, Wis. "I feel super comfortable with my development, and I feel like it was crucial to the way my career played out at Iowa."

Yet, there is still plenty of upside to the 21-year-old linebacker's game. A hockey player from birth, Van Ness didn't dive fully into football until his final two seasons at Barrington (Ill.) High School.

A natural on the gridiron, Van Ness had a fast six-month recruiting process. He ultimately settled on Iowa, citing the stability of the program under head coach Kirk Ferentz and time spent attending Hawkeyes games as a child.

While Van Ness never started for Iowa – the Hawkeyes had two redshirt seniors at defensive end – he still played close to 1,000 snaps the past two years while earning the respect of his contemporaries.

Rushing mainly off the edge this past fall, Van Ness' combination of power and length propelled him to 38 tackles (11 for loss) and 6½ sacks. He was voted second-team All-Big Ten by both the coaches and media.

"Getting the opportunity to bump back outside this year … that's where I feel comfortable," Van Ness said. "That's where I feel like I can use my tools and excel, and they bumped me outside and I feel like I was able to take what I learned playing defensive tackle and move it outside to play a physical brand of football, use my length on the edge, use my power and just really impact the game to help this team win."

The Packers took notice of Van Ness' ascension. General Manager Brian Gutekunst traveled to Iowa's pro day to get a closer look at the budding pass rusher and came away impressed by both the skills of player and the character of the person.

His measureables and 40 are similar to 6-foot-5, 277-pound linebacker Rashan Gary, whom Gutekunst drafted 12th overall out of Michigan in 2019. Van Ness' background of playing inside and outside also closely mirrors how the Packers utilized former Pro Bowl linebacker Za'Darius Smith.

Gary apprenticed under Za'Darius and Preston Smith during his first two seasons before graduating into a full-time starting role in 2021. With Gary recovering from knee surgery, there could be an avenue for Van Ness to get on the field right away for the Packers, who return Preston Smith, Kingsley Enagbare and Justin Hollins at outside linebacker.

"I do think he's going to play right away, and he'll help us right away," Gutekunst said. "There's so much technique to that to be able to win in this league. It all takes them a little bit of time. But I would expect him to be able to help us this year."

Take a look at Packers LB Lukas Van Ness during his college career.

Van Ness said he has studied Preston Smith's game in the past and sees natural parallels between the way he was utilized at Iowa and the variety of roles Smith has played during his four years in Green Bay.

He also worked out a little during the pre-draft process in Thousand Oaks, Calif., with Packers' two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kenny Clark, which helped him get a feel for Green Bay's culture.

"I'm at a loss for words, just finally coming to the sense of my emotions," Van Ness said. "I'm happy to see this all come to fruition. Since I decided to come out about four months ago, I put my nose to the grindstone.

"I couldn't have asked for a better result. I'm just so happy to be a Packer and I can't wait to get out there and wear that green."

As a pass rusher, Van Ness feels he offers a power-oriented style to the defensive front while also possessing ideal length (34-inch arms and an 81¾-inch wingspan) to separate from opposing offensive linemen.

It was enough to earn him the moniker of "Hercules" from teammates at Iowa, which took on a life of its own during the pre-draft process. Van Ness takes it all in stride, though, as he now looks to carve out a new name for himself in the NFL.

"Honestly, I think it's very fitting," Van Ness said. "I think it kind of gives me someone to idolize and it makes me laugh sometimes when people call me that. It's something that started between some of my teammates (who) kind of mentioned my physique.

"I love to work out, so honestly it's a cool nickname and it could be worse."


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