Kenny Clark speaks out: ‘The best me is The Best’
Green Bay lost its star wide receiver this offseason. Gone is Davante Adams. What they gained, however, could get this franchise over the Super Bowl hump once and for all: a new Kenny Clark.
Panic was justified. Nobody anticipated this plot twist.
When Aaron Rodgers was given 150,815,000 reasons to play football, the mass assumption was that Davante Adams would sign the dotted line next. These two players developed a clairvoyant connection the last eight years that — who knows? — may or may not be the result of the quarterback tripping out on psychedelics. There’s been some iconic duos in Green Bay through the years. Starr to McGee. Dickey to Lofton. Favre to Sharpe (and Freeman, and Driver). Rodgers to Jennings (and Nelson, and Cobb). Statistically, no duo tops this one.
It only made sense for both Rodgers and Adams to wall up their fists and pound on that Super Bowl door for at least one more season together.
Boy, we were all wrong. Dead wrong. Adams is a Raider.
What the Green Bay Packers lost this offseason — arguably the best receiver in the sport — is what everyone’s been talking about for months. Justifiably so. The franchise is essentially getting one of its vital organs replaced during training camp. Romeo Doubs’ breakout summer warrants all the Panda Watch-level coverage it has received. Perhaps there’s a star (or two) in hiding at wide receiver. Juwann Winfree is delivering on his tough talk, too. And yet, since that bomb dropped the night of March 17, it’s also been clear this organization is refusing to chase what it’s been. Perhaps because what’s it been since 2010 is a team bound to combust in the playoffs. Rather than frantically chase another wide receiver, GM Brian Gutekunst instead sought to make a very good defense great.
One storyline managed to fly completely under the radar, too: What the Green Bay Packers gained.
A completely new Kenny Clark.
One of our eagle-eyed subscribers noticed that Clark was looking svelte in an Instagram post, and asked in a Go Long Mailbag if there was anything to it. (“Even his face looks thinner,” David noted.) It all begged the question, What has Kenny Clark been up to? So, I reached out to Clark to find out and the answer is… quite a lot. You may remember Clark’s quest of self-discovery from our conversation inside his De Pere home last January. His father is behind bars for a crime he insists he did not commit and the aftershock of losing Dad lingered longer than anyone knew. As Clark explained then, he’s finally finding himself. A major part of that is now everything we’ll see on the field in 2022. This time, we talked all football.
Nobody knows just how much losing Adams will sting until the Packers’ season begins Sept. 11 at U.S. Bank Stadium against the Minnesota Vikings. But count Clark as one vet who wasn’t trembling in shock when the trade went down. He believes the offense will put up points regardless, and the defense? He expects a gigantic step.
“We can be a top 3 defense,” he says, “or the best defense in the league.”
It’s been a while. The Packers have finished with the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense only once since 1967 and that unit, of course, was the Reggie White- and LeRoy Butler-powered ’96 group that won the Super Bowl. Clark believes this ‘22 Packers defense “definitely” can finish No. 1 because he sees all the necessary ingredients: Elite pass rusher (Rashan Gary), playmaking linebacker (De’Vondre Campbell), shutdown cornerback (Jaire Alexander). He sees youth. And experience. And, above all, his own confidence is skyrocketing. Through a six-year career, Clark has been one of the most underrated players in the sport.
It’s true that he’s lighter. But Clark’s offseason transformation runs much deeper.
“I want to be known as the best nose tackle ever,” Clark says. “And as far as defensive tackles go, I want to be the best defensive tackle. I don’t care who it is. You can turn on anybody else’s film in this league, I’ll put my film up with anybody’s. You can’t watch the film and tell me ‘This guy’s better than me’ or ‘This guy does this.’ Or ‘X, Y, Z is better than me.’ I definitely think I have the talent to be as good as I want to be. Yes, I can be an all-time great. Yes, I can be the best nose tackle to ever play. That’s my goal. That’s what I want to do. I love this game. I want to bring the best out of myself. Whatever it takes to do that kind of stuff, that’s what I going to do. Whatever it takes to put myself into that position. All that takes is hard work. If I put in the work, keep my mind clear and focus on the things I can control and keep the main thing the main thing — as long as I stay with my same mentality — the sky’s the limit for me.
“I’m not holding anything back anymore. I’m trying to be the best me that I can be. I always tell people, ‘The best me is the best.’ I truly feel that. The best in the league.”
For these Packers to punch through and finally… once and for all… step atop the Super Bowl platform to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, the tipping point may be this defense morphing into a band of heathens that nobody in the league wants to face. That hasn’t been the case in a long time. The sight of Butler getting into Canton last weekend should serve as a reminder of a different time. Opponents haven’t feared playing at Lambeau Field since those mid-90s.
A revamped defense can change that.
More specifically, a driven Kenny Clark can change that.
He has stayed mum for too long. No. 97 in the middle of this Packers defense is ready to announce his presence with both his pads and proclamations. History is on his mind and — in immense detail — Clark explains to Go Long why everyone can expect a completely different player in 2022, and beyond.
The moment of clarity paralyzed Kenny Clark in his tracks. That playoff loss to San Francisco was still fresh when Clark conducted an honest inventory of his career. It’s been a fruitful six seasons: two Pro Bowls, a $70 million contract, captaincy, widespread respect across the NFL. But he wanted more. Needed more. Clark essentially got in touch with his football soul and realized he was extremely unsatisfied.
He recognized the big picture, the fact that he’d turn 27 in October, and decided right then that time was of the essence. He needs to catapult himself into the realm of all-time greats.
“I already feel like I’m the best,” Clark says, “but I can really establish myself as one of the best. That’s my goal. I love football. I love everything this game has brought to me. And I’ve been that way since I was a kid, and I want to make sure that I’m taking every single step that I can. When I am done playing, I want to make sure I took every single step to get the most out of my body and got the most out of myself. And that I was able to make plays and it was all from taking care of my body and putting in the extra work.
“I have a high confidence in myself. And I know I could be one of the best to play this game. I just have to keep putting in the work.”
His words read like the script of a Rocky reboot and we’re all to believe this goliath is power-cleaning an obscene amount of weight inside a sweaty dungeon of a gym. But, no. That’s not the case at all. This offseason, Clark has more so resembled a suburban mother. All that’s missing is a Saturday morning trip to the farmer’s market.
When Clark answers his phone for this story, he’s on his way to… Pilates. Yes, Pilates. It’s hard to picture any man of this size torquing his limbs at such angles but that was Clark all offseason long. Stiff as a board for too many years, Clark started twisting into “crazy positions” on a yoga mat to drastically increase his flexibility. The key to holding these poses, he learned, is locking in his core. Of course, nose tackles are historically not known for their cores. There weren’t many shirtless portraits of Gilbert Brown, Ted Washington, Tony Siragusa and Cortez Kennedy gracing magazine covers through the 90s.
For Clark, Pilates was an emphasis all offseason long.
It all boils down to one goal: Balance.
“It’s going to help me be stronger at the point of attack,” Clark begins. “When I do punch somebody and I’m getting off the ball, it’s going to help me stay more balanced. It’s going to help me stay balanced when I’m turning the corner pass rushing so I’m not falling over my feet. It helps my posture. On top of that, it gets you a lot stronger in those small muscles. All those holds you’re doing — all that Plyo stuff and the stuff you’re doing on the machine and the shoulder work — it prevents injuries, too. All those small muscles get strong, and that’s been changing my body a lot, too. I’ve been seeing stuff in my body that I didn’t even know I had. My obliques, my shoulder muscles, my back, all that kind of stuff. I’m seeing stuff I never even knew I had.”
Clark has made a living pile-driving linemen into the backfield to ruin plays while still registering 27 sacks and 47 quarterback hits the last five seasons. Yet for too long, these small muscles were buried — partly due to body fat, partly due to neglect. Not anymore. Yeah, it’s pretty cool to wake up and discover brand-new muscles in the mirror. The goal is to become more “twitchy” because it’s that twitchiness that’ll get Clark to that quarterback. Clark knows how close that 27 count is to being 30, 35, 40, citing a “direct correlation” between being more twitchy and tagging the QB.
So, Pilates alone isn’t enough. Clark also needed to get lighter. He began last season at 310 pounds and finished at 320. This season, he’s aiming to start and finish at 305. When we hung out last January, it should be noted, there were a couple Chipotle bags on his dining room table. He remembers. He chuckles. In the past, Clark admits he sprinkled far too many cheat days into his calendar. Honestly, he has found it difficult to eat and drink healthy when the weather turns. In that way, Clark is no different than any of us who have lived in Wisconsin for an extended period of time. (Side note: I could use a heaping plate of cheese curds this second.) But as he enters Year 7, Clark is determined to remain disciplined so those little muscles don’t go back into hibernation by November.
Carbs are back on the menu now because he needs the energy for practice, but right up to the week before reporting to training camp, Clark stuck to a strict keto diet. Salads, fish, chicken. That’s basically all he ate all offseason. While Clark has had the same personal chef out in California the last six years, he’s been more disciplined in sticking to that chef’s plan. He’s losing weight the “right way,” not from starving himself.
Heck, he’s even running more. Anything to keep the weight off.
“If this is what it takes for me to get to the next level and keep my motor going,” Clark says, “to get the most out of my body, it is what it is. It’s hard. I’m an ice cream guy. I love ice cream. I love ‘In-N-Out.’ I love rice and beans and Mexican food — enchiladas. Pizza. I love all that stuff. But I’ve got to be consistent and get the most out of my body and fuel it the right way.”
The Packers want all of their defensive linemen to be more active, more disruptive this season. Clark says this is the “new philosophy” position coach Jerry Montgomery is preaching. Add it all up and the logic was simple in his head: “Why not get lighter?” He expects this core work to also help with the groin issues he’s had the last two seasons. As for his ability to hold the point of attack and eat up two blockers when needed? That’s the tricky needle to thread. Less body mass could soften an important element of his game but, for now, Clark doesn’t anticipate this being a problem.
Clark is well aware that he’s got 4,000-plus snaps on his body — 4,000-plus violent snaps at the line of scrimmage. This isn’t a linebacker running around or a receiver running a route. Smashing into others this much takes a toll. Think back to the best Packers’ nose tackles ever. B.J. Raji lasted six seasons. Brown was a full-time starter seven seasons. It’s difficult to sustain excellence at this position because of the sheer pounding. That’s also feeding the urgency to Clark’s game, the need to fully maximize this opportunity.
After Green Bay was eliminated from the playoffs, Clark was forced to watch the gold standard at defensive tackle cement his status as an all-time great. For a player who sincerely believes he’s the greatest in the game — similar to Cam Heyward in Latrobe — this could not have been easy, right? Aaron Donald is the three-time defensive player of the year. Aaron Donald is the equally beloved and feared Marvel character. For guys like Clark and Heyward who do so much that’s unappreciated by the naked eye, what’s it like to see Donald lasso Joe Burrow in a 360 spin to win the Super Bowl? To see him point to his ring finger in front of the entire country? Clark’s answer was surprising.
He was “extremely happy.” He doesn’t know Donald personally but everyone he talks to about Donald repeats how hard he works. To hear all of those epic workout tales and then see it all pay off in the form of a Super Bowl win was actually inspiring, not bittersweet. One more droplet of motivation.
“He puts in the work, year-in and year-out to be the best in the game,” Clark says. “So, I try to bring that same approach. To be my best, I look at guys like that. To hear the stories and the stuff he does — I hear all that — and it always comes down to the same thing and there’s a common denominator to everything: Putting in the work. Getting the most out of your body. Keeping your mind clear. Keeping that great mentality. Everybody in the world should feel like they’re the best at what they do. If you don’t feel like that, there’s something wrong.
“I’m going to try to live my life every single day and push myself every single day like I’m the best at what I do, and I’ll try to prove that every single week. If I’m my best self then that’s the best.”
A new formula
God Bless, Mike Daniels. He tried. From 2012 through 2018 — suffering through so much playoff heartache — the defensive tackle tried his darndest to inject this Packers defense with toughness. He typically spoke on the Friday before Sunday’s game. Cameras and recorders gathered ‘round and Daniels sounded more like a boxer before another heavyweight bout. In an angry voice, he’d explain how he planned to slug the opposition directly in the mouth.
It never got old. A roster lacking ass-kickers needed this.
The Packers did occasionally bully an offense around. Let’s not forget Green Bay abused the Seattle Seahawks for 56 minutes in the NFC Championship Game. For the most part, however, the Packers’ defense has been exposed as amateurs each postseason. Everyone from Eli Manning to Colin Kaepernick to Julio Jones to Raheem Mostert has taken turns digging the team’s grave. Philosophically, something has been off. After drafting six defensive players in the first round since ’18 and writing fat checks to De’Vondre Campbell (five years, $50M), Rasul Douglas (three years, $21M), Adrian Amos (four years, $36M), Jaire Alexander (four years, $84M), Preston Smith (four years, $52M) and Clark, the time’s finally come for Green Bay to win a new way.
Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur wanted Adams back, obviously, but surely realize there’s an opportunity for a smart counter to everything that hasn’t worked. By drafting Quay Walker 22nd overall and Devonte Wyatt 28th overall, the Packers continued to load up on defense. A defense that’s been trending the right direction in the most important games. In 2020, the Packers picked off Tom Brady three times in the NFC title game (and lost). In 2021, the Packers held San Francisco’s offense to six points. The quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, completed 11 passes. The running back, Elijah Mitchell, averaged 3.1 yards per carry.
The four-time MVP should be able to figure the offense out. Rodgers doesn’t need to put up 35 points, either.
As weird as it sounds, the Packers are aiming to win with defense. Everything Daniels used to say from his corner of the locker room can finally be fully realized.
Kenny Clark believes.
“We definitely can win with defense,” he says. “We can definitely do it. It’s just all about consistency. How consistent can you be doing that, week in and week out? Talent-wise, we definitely have the guys to do it. But the talent doesn’t mean anything. We’ve got to stay the course, work hard.”
Clark doesn’t remember ever having this much talent on the line. The Packers added Jarran Reed in free agency in addition to drafting Georgia’s Wyatt. Many times over, Clark praises Dean Lowry as one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the league. And in Year 4 — after 9.5 sacks and 28 QB hits in 2021 — edge rusher Rashan Gary has a chance to break out as a star. The franchise’s patience in Gary’s development is paying off. Most importantly, this young core knows what it’s like to cruise through a regular season, build up real Super Bowl hopes and fall short. Three straight seasons, the Packers won 13 games. Three straight seasons, they failed to reach the Super Bowl. That sort of slog either demoralizes a group of players or callouses them for more.
By continuing to fortify the defense, the Packers should be a calloused bunch.
Says Clark: “We have guys who genuinely want to win and have had that taste of winning and have been right there — been close to Super Bowls. Guys are hungry. Guys are hungry to be great. We all have our personal goals that we want to accomplish. And we’ve got our No. 1 team goal that comes first.”
The defense’s problem? Not treating noon games the same as primetime.
This group plays with a fire under the lights, but is too often prone to a letdown. Last season, the Browns steamrolled Green Bay for 219 rushing yards on Christmas Day and Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins lit them up for 341 yards and three touchdowns in a Vikes win. It’s like the Packers had a “switch,” Clark adds, and turned it off for too many daytime games. He vows to eliminate that switch. If everyone else on this Packers defense starts waking up in the morning with his urgency, finishing No. 1 in any statistical category is within reach.
“Individually, it’s tough. It’s tough to be great,” Clark says. “I know for me, it’s tough every single day to get up every single day and go work out. Every single day, I’m pushing myself to be better, to take that next step in my game. So, it’s tough to consistently do that each and every day… each and every week… and have that same mentality. The guys that are able to do that each and every time, you see it pop up on film and they play at a high level and they make huge plays. We’ll have three games that are really good, and then we’ll let one go. We’ll let a team rush on us or have a really good passing day.
“We’ve got to stay consistent each and every day. As long as we do that, we have the talent to be No. 1.
“We’re going to be a force.”
Quiet no more
The volatility of Aaron Donald has brandished his hell-on-wheels reputation. There’s no telling what he’ll do next.
He chokes players during both games and practices and, as our Bob McGinn chronicled last season, Donald has always been a man amongst boys. We all cannot take our eyes off of this battering ram and, honestly, when’s the last time we’ve said that about any defensive tackle? He (legally) trashes linemen during the play and, in operating at such a manic pace, is bound to (illegally) habitually line-step. It’s inevitable. There are dozens of dirty plays mixed in with those highlight-reel sacks on his tape. And in pure disposition, Clark does not come across at all like Donald.
Clark agrees he doesn’t have such recklessness in his football DNA. He isn’t going to pretend to be someone he’s not and take a swipe at a lineman after the whistle.
But this is also true: He’s tired of being quiet.
“I’ve been slept on,” Clark says. “I’ve been slept on for a long time. I’ve been slowly getting the national recognition that I deserve — and have been deserving — but I think I don’t get the recognition I deserve because a lot more people are saying they’re doing this and people catch onto it. I’ve always been the guy in the back not beating my chest and saying ‘I’m the best.’ Not to say I’m coming out to be cocky but I have to start showing people and proving to people, ‘This is what the best is. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been doing it consistently for a long time. At the nose tackle position, consistently, year-in and year-out. And I feel like I’ve been the best for a long time, especially at the nose tackle position.’ I’ll prove it to you every single week. And when it’s all said and done — when my numbers stack up with everybody else’s, all the other nose tackles — you’ll see where I’m at and where everybody else is at.”
Even as all schemes evolve, there’s no getting around the reality that Clark is still the 305-pound heartbeat of the defense lining up over the ball. His primary objective is to cave the pocket, disrupt all timing, do all the shameless work that frees up others. Vince Wilfork anchored New England’s front for a decade, yet never had more than 3.5 sacks in a season. Haloti Ngata had the same impact in Baltimore for a decade and never eclipsed 5.5. If Clark can both shut down an offense’s rushing attack at the nose and rack up the sacks and QB pressures, his claim for the throne will have merit.
It’s hard to do it all. As good as Donald is, he weighs in the 280s. He can go quiet for stretches.
Clark is seeking a realm few defensive tackles have ever entered. That’s why he surrounds himself with far more “no” men than “yes” men — trainers and nutritionists and yoga instructors who eliminate all possible shortcuts.
“They don’t kiss my ass and tell me I’m good and give me hugs and stuff,” Clark adds. “They genuinely push me. They genuinely want me to be the best I can be. I’ve always been a self-motivator. I don’t need outside noise to motivate me. I genuinely love to play football. I love the process. I love to be out on the field with my teammates. So with the mentality I’ve got, it's awesome the results I can get.
“Performing,” he adds, “is the easy part.”
All of that reading helped. He hasn’t forgotten the lessons learned in Tim Grover’s “Relentless.” Michael Jordan’s longtime trainer detailed how the Chicago Bulls star’s motor was different. Since listening to this audiobook last season, Clark has been actively fighting — and squashing — complacency. In studying his 2021 film, Clark realized he could’ve racked up many more sacks within his assignment. There’s no need to abandon his gap. He’s a split-second away and shedding 15 pounds of fat will account for that split-second.
Leverage. Power. Explosiveness. Once more, he asserts he’ll never stray “from what makes me me.”
“Because who I am is great,” Clark says. “The best me is the best. Stick to that. Stay in that mentality. I had a really good year last year and it could’ve been a lot better. I left a lot of stuff out there. If I capitalize on what I missed, man, I could be great. My whole mentality this year is creating havoc and being as disruptive as possible. I’m not chasing stats. I’m not chasing to make plays and to be a splash-play guy. I’m trying to create as much havoc as possible. Whether that’s me creating splash plays or me putting my hands on somebody and knocking them back or whether that’s me pass rushing and getting sacks, any way I can create havoc and be disruptive — and disrupt the game — that’s the mentality I’m going to bring every single day.”
The disruption has been contagious through camp and that makes for a strange sight: a Packers defense slapping around a Packers offense. The words alone, “Allen Lazard, No. 1 receiver” have made talking heads gag in confusion. But there’s no question the roster was in need of a transformation. Too often, Mike McCarthy catered to his offense in camp. Practices became too finesse, too soft and each January it came back to bite his team in the ass. Moving away from this always required more than one swoop of a pen, one free agent signing. It took draft capital and shrewd free agent signings and hitting the jackpot on a street free agent (like Douglas).
After meticulously piecing together the right personnel, the Packers are ready to win a new game.
Of course, it’s not as if the offense’s conductor is TJ Rubley or Graham Harrell. Fresh off another MVP season, it’s incumbent upon Rodgers to elevate the play of everyone around him and to buy into the 21-17 win. (That Aaron Jones-AJ Dillon combination at running back helps, too.)
The regular season is mostly irrelevant. The Packers needed to build a team — a defense — capable of winning in January.
From January to August, the best player on that defense transformed himself, too.
Now, it’s time for Clark to make some noise.
“Show the world who I am,” he says. “It’s going to be hard to stop me if I keep doing what I’m doing.”