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Kenny Clark excited to show young defensive line the Green Bay way

Packers’ two-time Pro Bowler striving to be more vocal this spring

Packers defensive lineman Kenny Clark and T.J. Slaton
Packers defensive lineman Kenny Clark and T.J. Slaton

GREEN BAY – Colby Wooden didn't need an introductory tutorial on Kenny Clark after the Packers selected the former Auburn defensive lineman in the fourth round of the 2023 NFL Draft.

Wooden had already been in the lab – or game room, more specifically.

"With Kenny, I ain't gonna lie, I used to play with the Packers' defense in 'Madden,'" Wooden said. "So, I knew he was good. I used to watch his film, his hand placement, his pad level, all that sort of stuff."

It's a fitting reflection of Clark's place in Green Bay's new-age locker room. The 27-year-old defensive lineman is still an ascending young talent by most metrics, but he's also suddenly the longest-tenured member of the Packers' defense by two full seasons.

The two-time Pro Bowler entered the league in 2016 at just 20 years old, spending his formative NFL years learning from the likes of Mike Daniels, Letroy Guion and Ricky Jean-Francois.

As his profile rose, however, Clark was still playing beyond his years. Even contemporaries such as Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed, with whom Clark shared the D-line last year, were both a full year older.

The Packers lost Lowry (Minnesota) and Reed (Seattle) to unrestricted free agency this past March, meaning Clark – for the first time in his eight NFL seasons – is now the oldest member of his position room.

How vast is the difference? Clark has played in 114 NFL games, including playoffs. Of the other eight D-linemen on Green Bay's roster, only T.J. Slaton and Devonte Wyatt have appeared in an NFL regular-season contest (50 combined appearances with two starts).

As daunting as that transition may seem, Clark has embraced the challenge this spring.

"It's crazy just seeing all those guys learning," Clark said. "They're asking me questions about formations and what they see. I always remind them it's always about the details. It's the little stuff that separates people. It's refreshing for me to get questions from those guys because it puts me back in that mode about all the details."

What the Packers lack in proven experience, they make up for in potential. In addition to adding Slaton and Wyatt the past two offseasons, General Manager Brian Gutekunst doubled down on the D-line during the third day of this year's draft – taking Wooden 116th overall and Bowling Green's Karl Brooks in the sixth round (No. 179).

Green Bay also returns massive nose tackle Jonathan Ford, a 2022 seventh-round pick out of Miami (Fla.), and 26-year-old Chris Slayton, a former seventh-round pick by the New York Giants who spent all of last season on the Packers' practice squad.

With the D-line skewing as young as ever, Clark has been intentional about being more vocal with the rookies and second-year players this spring. While longtime Packers defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery has praised Clark for his professionalism and leadership in the past, even he's noticed a difference in the former team captain's approach.

"Kenny is one of the greatest leaders," said Montgomery, who's worked with Clark since his arrival as a first-round pick out of UCLA. "He's actually being a lot more vocal right now, especially in our room. The communication he's having with the guys. He's pulling guys to the side as I'm coaching other guys up. He's earned that respect. He has the room."

As the Packers welcome a new influx of D-linemen, Clark has even higher expectations for himself in Year 8. While a perennially disruptive and durable performer, Clark still felt he could've been more consistent last season.

The 6-foot-3, 314-pound defensive lineman started all 17 games, tallying 53 tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble, but he wants to help a defense with eight former first-round picks to reach its full potential this year.

To accomplish that goal, Clark knows better than anyone the Packers will need the young D-linemen around him to blossom as quickly as he once did in the shadow of Daniels and Guion.

"We always had Dean. We had J-Reed, Mike D, all those guys," Clark said. "Now I'm out there, I'm telling them what I see and I'm holding them to that standard, just trying to get them to understand that all that little stuff that I see matters. Once they keep understanding that, it'll allow them to play faster and use their ability and allow them to get the thinking out of the game."

Wooden recognizes the urgency of the situation. Last week, the 6-foot-4, 273-pound rookie was thrown into the fire with the first-team defense after Wyatt dropped out of practice.

Wyatt was back on Tuesday, even forcing a few pressures of quarterback Jordan Love during team periods, but the Packers could very well be relying on their incoming rookies as the next D-linemen up barring a summertime signing.

That possibility excites Wooden. Because he's no longer just playing as Clark on a gaming console – he's lining up next to him in reality.

"Just being here now with him, it's an even better feeling to get more knowledge from him," Wooden said. "For that, I'm just grateful."