Strength goes beyond muscle, runs deeper than physical endurance, though UCLA sophomore nose tackle Kenneth Clark counts both traits among his many assets.
“He’s the perfect guy to build a defense around,” defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich recently said of Clark, who became a starter late last season and was credited with 14 tackles in the Bruins’ first two games this season, victories over Virginia and Memphis.
Clark fits that pivotal role, and not only because of the power in his 6-foot-3, 308-pound frame, his sure instincts and clever hands. It’s also because of the inner strength he developed when he became the man of his family at the age of 9, when his father, Kenneth Sr., was sent to prison in 2005.
They talk almost daily, he said, and he’s hopeful his dad will be released before the end of this football season and will be able to see him play.
Kenneth Sr. likely won’t recognize the responsible adult his son has become.
“It just put me in a position to be a man and grow up fast. Not having my dad there, those years, it put me in position to grow faster, be a man, hold myself accountable, know what I had to do to push my brothers and sisters to be great and to do something,” Clark said Tuesday after the Bruins practiced at Spaulding Field.
“It was just working hard and my mom telling me to work hard at everything I do. Get good grades and do what I love to do — play football. Everything worked out and I’m at UCLA. For somebody out of Rialto playing football at UCLA is a dream come true.”
Relatives and friends tried to fill the void his father left, “but it’s not like having your dad,” he said. “I’m happy I went through that experience and I’m happy I’m still close with my dad. In all, it made me a stronger person. It’s a win for me. Now it’s just all about him being able to come out of prison.”
But Clark would not have gotten this far without the support of his mother, Leslie, who now lives in Fontana. He credited her with inspiring him to be strong for a family that includes a sister and brother on his father’s side and three younger siblings on his mother’s side.
“My mom is a strong person and that’s where I really think I get that from,” Clark said of Leslie, who plans to travel to the Bruins’ game against Texas on Saturday in Arlington, Texas.
“Because out of all the adversity that she went through as a child and not having her husband to help her take care of her kids — and she has a lot of kids — my mom is a strong lady,” he added. “She also had to grow up fast. She just teaches us everything. She doesn’t want us to make her mistakes. She wants us to learn from everything that goes on, wherever we’re at.”
Kenny has learned with every game, and this season has picked up the nuances of first-year coordinator Ulbrich’s defensive schemes. Clark is shading, or lining up toward a particular gap by aligning on the guard’s shoulder instead of going head-up, which gives him space.
“I like being shaded. I never was shaded in high school and when I came here the first year I played just head-up nose,” Clark said. “When he shaded me I felt like I could make more plays that way. It has really benefited me.”
He made a career-best eight tackles in the Bruins’ season-opening 28-20 victory at Virginia and easily eluded the double teams he often faced. He was credited with six more tackles as the Bruins held on to edge Memphis, 42-35, last Saturday, but the defensive unit as a whole slipped from its impressive effort in Game 1. Players missed too many tackles and made enough mistakes to let the Tigers stay in the game. Although the Bruins won, they dropped a spot to No. 12 in the polls.
Clark said he’s not preoccupied with outsiders’ judgments.
“There’s a lot of people that have us down and have us as, ‘Oh, the same old UCLA.’ I love it like that,” he said. “I love it when people think we’re just the same, old UCLA and think we’re soft.
“It’s just a matter of us coming back in and being able to play good offensively and defensively and just shock the world. To be able to throw in a good performance would be good this week, especially going into the Pac-12 schedule.
“I’m not worried about the critics. I’m not worried about what anybody says. I’m just trying to work hard for my team and my team is working hard. The polls don’t mean anything to me because the season is far from over and we’re 2-0. We’re undefeated. That’s all I know right now.”
There’s that inner strength again, carrying him and the Bruins, too.