Temperatures rose into the 90’s, his snap count rose into the 90’s and UCLA’s Kenny Clark is a 320-pound man.
Not only that.
Clark takes on double-teams for a living — “run or pass,” his coach said, “he’s got four hands on him.” Yet when Angus McClure asked Clark to sit out for a series this game against Colorado at the Rose Bowl, the nose guard waved him off.
“He says, ‘Coach, I’m just getting better, I'm just getting better,’” said McClure, UCLA’s defensive line coach. “ And I’ll tell you what, the best part of the game was that fourth quarter.
“I think he had 101 snaps that game.”
Not much phases this NFL draft prospect. Why? He’s been the man of the house since he was nine years old. In 2005, Clark’s father, Kenneth Sr., was sent to prison for murder and he left behind a wife with four children. On the spot, Kenny Jr. helped raised his three siblings when he was still a kid himself. He had no choice but to grow up. Fast. And now, he projects as a first-round prospect.
Clark glued UCLA’s defense together for three seasons, totaling 75 tackles (11 for loss) with six sacks and five pass break-ups as a senior.
Anything he does on the field is traced back to his childhood.
“It was real traumatic,” Clark said. “The person you love is gone. So it was a difficult situation. It was a heartbreaking situation and we all learned from it. My family learned from it; he learned from it. We’re still close today. It was a difficult situation for everybody.”
True, the two talk four times a week. Son is even hopeful Dad will get released from prison by draft day or his first NFL game. He's been appealing in court.
The upbringing, Kenny said, instilled a work ethic. He was forced to learn a lot about life on his own. When his mother was off at work, he was the one keeping the house in order. Everyone in the Clark family had to mature in a hurry — “you live with it,” he said.
“It was just all hard,” Clark said. “I have to grow up and be a man. Make decisions. Watch the people I hang around with. So, yeah, it’s a tough situation for everybody honestly. ... I am who I am. I work how I work. I’ve always been competing since I was a little boy. There’s nothing that can stop me. So I’m just taking in that mentality.”
McClure realized Clark was different on his recruiting trip to San Bernadino. The coach stepped into Clark’s home and saw the type of direction he gave his brother and two sisters. Neighborhood kids rallied around him, too.
On the wrestling mat, he was a beast. Nobody at the school was big enough to wrestle Kenny, so he talked his younger brother into practicing against him. Kenny is “intrinsically motivated,” McClure said, in that he “wants to prove his worth.” On to UCLA, upperclassmen gravitated toward the freshman. Future NFL players such as Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Jordan Zumwalt and Owa Odighizuwa all listened to Clark even though he was younger.
“You don’t see that a lot — he emerged as a team leader as a freshman,” McClure said. “I’ve coached a lot of guys who emerged in their positional groups as a leader. But he emerged within the team as a leader.”
With Clark eating up blockers, Kendricks broke UCLA’s all-time tackling record. Off the field, he became one of the first people in his family to attend and finish college.
The wrestling background helps in the trenches — McClure cites Clark's bend, flexibility, ankle flexion, hips, leverage. He’s athletic enough to defeat a double-team and make a play himself.
No, Clark won't dive into the details of his father’s case but he is optimistic, saying "everything’s been looking good so far.” He's hopeful his Dad gets to see him play. They’ve stayed close as Kenny grew into a man.
Through it all, son learned how to shake off one bad play, one bad day and dominate the next.
“Everything’s not going to go my way and I totally understand that,” Clark said. “I rarely get mad at things. I just work hard and have the utmost confidence in my abilities. I know what I can and cannot do. It’s confidence and staying strong. Being mentally strong. At the end of the day, I went through real harder times than what’s going on, on that football field. It’s staying strong. When you’re playing football, nobody wants to see you being soft or complaining.
“I pride myself on being tough, doing what I’m told and just being strong.”
Five other defensive linemen to track at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis...
Joey Bosa (Ohio State): He may be the best player in the draft, a 6-foot-6, 275-pound menace who had 21 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks in 2014 as the Big Ten defensive player of the year. Finished with 16 TFL's and five sacks in 2015 but Big Ten coaches still voted him the conference's defensive lineman of the year.
DeForest Buckner (Oregon): The Pac-12 defensive player of the year appears to be the quintessential 3-4 end at 6-7, 281. Extremely active vs. the run and pass, totaling 83 tackles (17 for loss) with 10.5 sacks last fall. Long arms. A better pass rusher than the Oregon end that went 17th overall in last year's draft, Arik Armstead.
Jarran Reed (Alabama): A solid run defender in the SEC, excelling at the three-technique, Reed helped himself during Senior Bowl Week in Mobile. Adept at taking on and shedding blockers, he had 108 tackles the last two seasons despite playing just about half of the snaps.
A'Shawn Robinson (Alabama): Possesses the size and athleticism to play the nose or the five-technique at a chiseled 6-4, 312. Extremely powerful, Robinson should impress scouts at the Combine. He's still raw, getting caught upright at times. Had 46 tackles (7.5 TFL) with 3.5 sacks last season.
Jonathan Bullard (Florida): The Gator follows the footsteps of Shariff Floyd and Dominique Easley as an agile, versatile defensive tackle. Shoots gaps as well as any tackle in the draft, totaling 17.5 tackles for loss in 2015, though was prone to over-running ball-carriers. At 283, he might need to add weight.
Previous Road to the Combine posts...