UCLA DT Kenny Clark stands tall among Pac-12's best players
LOS ANGELES (AP) UCLA defensive tackle Kenny Clark is an unlikely fixture on lists of the 10 best players in the Pac-12.
He has one sack and 9 1/2 tackles for loss in two seasons with the Bruins, totals that Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright or Southern California linebacker/safety Su'a Cravens might match or exceed in non-conference play alone this season. He isn't a two-way star like Bruins teammate Myles Jack or Trojans sophomore Adoree Jackson.
Yet the analytics gurus at Pro Football Focus listed Clark as the sixth-best returning player in the conference, and draft analysts see the junior as a potential anchor for NFL defenses, sentiments that put him alongside the Pac-12's most high-profile players.
''I don't really try to listen to all that or look at all that, but I'm happy my name is on those boards,'' Clark said. ''It's pretty cool to me, but I got to keep working and keep my foot to the pedal.''
That high-effort approach has come to define Clark and set him apart from other interior linemen. Outside linebacker Deon Hollins compares Clark's motor to former USC linebacker Clay Matthews, now with the Green Bay Packers, while UCLA coach Jim Mora never has to push Clark to go all-out at all times.
''There are a lot of guys, it's just in their DNA to always go hard,'' Mora said. ''And then there are some that kind of go hard, and you've got to crank those guys to go hard all the time. With Kenny Clark, he's a `Go hard all the time' kind of guy.''
Clark is also a leader: He was named a team captain Tuesday night for the 13th-ranked Bruins, who open their season Saturday at the Rose Bowl against Virginia.
Despite playing most of the time as a nose tackle lined up directly over the center, Clark finished with 58 tackles last season, sixth-most on the team. He also played a staggering 868 snaps in 2014, according to PFF, the fourth-highest total among interior defensive linemen in college football.
Mora couldn't come up with any one particular play that best captures both Clark's mindset and skill set.
''With a guy like Kenny, you pull out any play and it's probably a pretty good play,'' Mora said.
Instead, the moments that might best reflect Clark's value come when he allows others to make plays. Clark is often asked to take on double teams and give UCLA's formidable linebacker corps the space necessary to tackle a running back or get to the quarterback.
Considering the productivity of Jack, Eric Kendricks and Kenny Young over the last two seasons, Mora's declaration that Clark always does his job at a high level rings true.
''Effort doesn't always mean running 10, 20 yards down the field and making a play,'' Mora said. ''It can be shedding a double team and laying out to make a shoestring tackle at the line of scrimmage that no one really notices. What you see with Kenny is just a consistent level of effort, high effort, high energy.''
Clark said that intensity started as a two-sport star at Carter High in San Bernardino, California, where he played on both the offensive and defensive lines and wrestled. He still has something resembling a wrestler's build at 6-foot-3, 310 pounds, certainly more athletic than the thick, sloppy or squatty body type usually associated with a space-eating tackle.
''Everything I did was attack, attack,'' Clark said. ''I guess that's what I have always been doing, just pushing forward.''
Since the end of last season, Clark has focused on improving as a pass rusher. He has worked on using his hands to better disengage from or overpower blockers and adding moves to his repertoire to create more pressure. If those attributes ever come close to matching his formidable run-stuffing presence - ''He is just stout in the middle,'' running back Paul Perkins said. ''You can't really move him.'' - Clark will be receiving plenty of attention going forward.
But don't expect an increase in adulation to change the way Clark approaches the decidedly unglamorous position of defensive tackle.
''I'm just playing within the team and playing within the scheme,'' Clark said. ''I'm just doing the best job I can of being the best nose guard I can be for this team and working as hard as I can to make my team a lot better.''