GREEN BAY – The ticket requests came in fast and furious for Kenny Clark's much-anticipated return to the Los Angeles area this weekend.
A native of nearby San Bernardino who starred at UCLA, the Packers’ third-year defensive lineman is expecting a big crowd for Sunday’s showdown with the undefeated Rams in what will be Clark’s first time playing in Los Angeles since he was drafted in the first round a little more than two years ago.
“I have a lot of family coming. I swear it’s like 30 people, 30-plus,” Clark said. “I have a lot of UCLA friends and family who are coming. My mom, they bought a lot of tickets. It’s crazy. There’s going to be a lot of people out there.”
Clark, only weeks removed from his 23rd birthday, has picked up right where he left off after a torrid finish to the 2017 season in which he recorded 4½ sacks over a span of five games in the month of December.
The 6-foot-3, 314-pound defensive lineman parlayed that momentum towards the best start of his young NFL career with 27 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble through Green Bay’s first six regular-season games.
Clark entered the Packers’ Week 7 bye on a high note, registering seven tackles and a sack in a come-from-behind 33-30 win over San Francisco on Oct. 15.
The fast start has the former first-round pick on pace to reset his career highs in both tackles (72) and sacks (five). Should he remain on that pace, Clark would become the first Green Bay defensive lineman to eclipse 70 official tackles in a season since Aaron Kampman in 2006.
“Kenny Clark is a Pro Bowl player. I don’t know how else to define what else he’s done,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday morning. “I think you saw it last year. He’s now stacking it each and every week. He’s obviously a focal point of the (opposing) offense, you can see that as the game plans unfold. Kenny’s playing at a very high level.”
Clark has been a busy man thus far, playing 321 of a possible 381 defensive snaps. That 84.3-percent playing time ranks third among defensive tackles, according to FootballOutsiders.com, with only Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald (89.8 percent) and Cleveland’s Larry Ogunjobi (89.5 percent) seeing more action.
Playing is one thing, but producing is another. Early on, Clark has been one of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s top playmakers, providing stout support against the run and pushing the pocket as an interior rusher on passing downs.
With Muhammad Wilkerson out for the season with an ankle injury, Clark’s flexibility has made it tough to take the third-year veteran off the field. Yet, he’s continued to make plays late in games despite his high rep count.
In the Packers’ win over the 49ers, Clark stopped running back Matt Breida twice for no gain on first down in the fourth quarter. Both times it led to the San Francisco drive sputtering.
“I didn’t expect I was, but it’s something I got used to, honestly,” Clark said of his extensive playing time. “I just try to take it one drive at a time. At the end of the day, everybody comes up to me like, ‘Do you know how many snaps you have?’ I’m like I didn’t even know. I knew I played a lot, but I don’t even know the amount of plays I’m playing and whether that’s a lot or not.”
It’s not like Clark hasn’t done this before. He recalls times at UCLA when he’d play close to 100 percent of the defensive snaps in a few pivotal Pac-12 matchups. Yes, fatigue challenges technique, but experience has taught Clark to overcome it.
Although he didn’t anticipate playing so much this season, Clark invested a lot of time and effort this past offseason into his strength and conditioning, and his teammates have taken notice.
“He’s been huge,” linebacker Blake Martinez said. “He's an amazing player and he's helped us out a ton. Disruptive nearly every single play.”
Clark and the Packers’ defense are in for perhaps their stiffest test of the year against a Rams offense that’s averaging 33.6 points per game and 445.3 total yards. Los Angeles’ run game, buoyed by All-Pro back Todd Gurley, currently leads the league with 153.1 yards per contest.
With dozens of family scheduled to be in attendance, Clark feels up to the challenge much like he was during his freshman year in 2013 when the Bruins toppled No. 23 USC 35-14 in front of more than 85,000 at the Coliseum.
Asked about his coach’s comments Tuesday, Clark appreciated the Pro Bowl compliment. While he has bigger aspirations than individual accolades, Clark would be lying if he said he didn’t have “Pro Bowl” scribbled down as an objective for 2018.
“That’s the plan. That’s one of my goals,” Clark said. “Just have to keep striving and doing what I’m doing, keep working and hopefully.”