GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It was hard to tell who was more excited: the basketball player-turned-wide receiver who’d caught the touchdown or the two-time NFL MVP-turned-scout team quarterback who’d thrown it. But as the two met shoulder-to-shoulder in a midair celebration -- “I think I was higher than he was,” Aaron Rodgers joked -- each was wearing a huge smile.
On a Green Bay Packers team loaded with wide receiver talent -- including a host of young pass-catchers who didn’t start their college careers as basketball players or played only one year of football -- Michael Clark knows the odds are against him.
After one year of Division I basketball at St. Francis (Pa.) and one year of football at Marshall, he’s 6 feet, 6 inches of raw potential -- “I barely know anything about football,” he confessed -- who is starting to turn heads by making plays that only someone with his height and his vertical leap (33 inches) can make.
And those plays, from skying for a deep ball during the first night practice of training camp last week to the two touchdown grabs he had in practice on Tuesday, have gotten the attention of Rodgers, a self-proclaimed midrange jump-shot aficionado who was running the look-team offense because he’s unlikely to play in Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.
“He's taller than most of those guys and he jumps better than most of those guys,” Rodgers replied with a laugh when asked what sets Clark apart from the Packers’ other young receivers (rookie draft picks DeAngelo Yancey and Malachi Dupre, first-year receiver Max McCaffrey and second-year wideouts Trevor Davis and Geronimo Allison). “I think it's that simple.
“You know, I've enjoyed having him in here. I didn't really know what to expect because he was out the entire spring with an injury, but he's come back and made a couple plays.”
Rodgers then paused. Perhaps, if he saw Clark as merely an interesting training camp human-interest story, he’d have simply stopped there. Because he’s genuinely intrigued by Clark’s potential -- “I really like him,” Rodgers would say later -- Rodgers shifted from showering Clark with compliments to raising the stakes.
“He needs to be more consistent,” Rodgers continued. “He's figuring it out, though. He's a basketball player who is trying to figure out route running and spacing, the timing and being sudden. But he has those ‘Wow!’ moments in practice. I was hoping to get him out there on the look team a little more to throw him some more jump balls.”
At this rate, Rodgers might get that chance. With No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson not expected to play against the Eagles and fellow top receivers Randall Cobb and Davante Adams unlikely to play more than a series or two, the rest of the Packers’ young wideouts, including Clark, should get plenty of snaps.
The difference? The others are much further along than Clark, who caught 37 passes for 632 yards and five touchdowns for the Thundering Herd in his one year of football, then signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent and promptly missed virtually all of the offseason program with a hamstring injury.
“When Mike got here for that rookie camp [in May], you saw a guy who literally doesn’t have any football experience. That was evident from the very first meeting that we had,” wide receivers coach Luke Getsy said. “What’s awesome for him is that he’s able to now get out there during training camp and see some of those successes.
“We’ve got to continue to give him opportunities like that and he’s got to continue to grow. He’s got a lot to learn about the game of football, but if he can continue to get those successes ... I think if you ask anybody in our room, I think his confidence is definitely growing.”
The 21-year-old Clark, who grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, played high school football only as a freshman before focusing on basketball. He went to St. Francis on a basketball scholarship as a stretch 4 but he played sparingly -- career stat line: 12 games, 43 minutes, six points, six rebounds, nine fouls, five turnovers -- and began to consider playing football again. He reached out to a former childhood basketball teammate -- Marshall quarterback Chase Litton -- and the next thing he knew, he was walking on in Huntington, West Virginia.
“After my freshman year of college, I said, ‘This isn’t for me,’” Clark said of basketball. “I never really had a favorite [sport], I just always felt like I had to pick. I wanted to give full attention to one. I was always a better football player.
“I got accepted [at Marshall] and the first day on campus, I had a practice. They put a helmet on me and everything.”
Clark admits he is still “scratching the surface” of what he can do, and coach Mike McCarthy acknowledges that Clark “has a long ways to go.” That means the practice squad might be Clark’s best-case scenario, as a year of development could do wonders for him.
That said, one play -- the touchdown pass from Rodgers that led to their joint celebration -- spoke to how far Clark has come. Set to run a post route, Rodgers had him convert to a go route against 2015 first-round pick Damarious Randall, who was at a seven-inch height disadvantage. Clark then boxed out the smaller Randall and made the catch, thrilling his quarterback.
“He saw that matchup and he threw it,” Clark said of Rodgers. Told it must be a good sign that Rodgers liked a matchup involving him, Clark smiled.
“We’ve had conversations. It’s kind of cool talking to Aaron. I’m still trying to learn and take in as much as I can, because a lot of stuff’s flying at me,” Clark said. “When I sit back and think, the stuff I’m doing is kind of ridiculous right now. But you can’t stay in the moment because you’ll be satisfied with yourself. When I’m lined up with him, I know it’s a different mentality. I’ve got to earn this guy’s trust. When he sees me jumping up getting those balls, he’s going to want to throw it to me.
“I’m just trying to show I belong here. But I’ve got to do it every single day. I have to continue to get better.”
Editor’s note: Jason Wilde covers the Green Bay Packers for ESPN Wisconsin and hosts Wilde & Tausch with former Packers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays on ESPN Milwaukee and ESPN Madison.