Monday, May 08, 2023

Aaron Kampman 2.0? Packers hope Lukas Van Ness can be another productive Iowa player


May 6, 2023


GREEN BAY — There’s not much extra space on the tiny regional jets that fly in and out of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa airport. But for Aaron Kampman and Lukas Van Ness, what the flight lacked in legroom it more than made up for in across-the-aisle interaction.

“I was in a single seat (on one side of the aisle) and he was alone with a double,” Kampman recounted with a chuckle. “So, it all worked out pretty well.”

The two obviously had plenty in common — both former University of Iowa standouts, both edge rushers with a knack for getting after the quarterback and, after Van Ness went in the first round of last weekend’s NFL Draft, both Green Bay Packers.

Kampman, who played 112 games over eight seasons in Green Bay (2002 through 2009), now runs a leadership development company and visits his alma mater frequently at the behest of Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz. That’s where he and Van Ness had crossed paths before their cruising altitude conversations.

“Kampman was a guy I continuously saw over the past few years in the building, and he’s always been a guy who was around and you could ask questions,” Van Ness said during a break in the Packers’ two-day post-draft rookie minicamp. “I rang a bunch of questions off of him.

“He’s always been a great resource, a guy that I could text and ask any question. I’m super thankful for Aaron Kampman.”

While their draft pedigrees are vastly different — unlike Van Ness, who as the No. 13 overall pick figures to get a $17.4 million rookie deal (including a $9.6 million signing bonus), Kampman came in as a little-known fifth-round pick (No. 156 overall) — the Packers would be thrilled if Van Ness becomes the player Kampman did.

Before the Packers shifted to a 3-4 defense under Dom Capers in 2009, Kampman had been their best overall defensive end in their 4-3 system, recording 50.5 sacks, 57 tackles for loss and 84 quarterback hits over his first seven seasons.

Kampman’s peak years were in 2006 and 2007, when he recorded 27.5 sacks and 56 quarterback hits on his way to earning back-to-back Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro selections.

And having watched Van Ness throughout his two seasons at Iowa, Kampman sees a guy who — despite never starting a game for the Hawkeyes — could be far more of a field-tilting player than he was in his heyday.

“I think he’s got some speed-to-power type assets in how he rushes (like I did),” Kampman said during an appearance on ESPN Wisconsin’s “Wilde & Tausch” last week. “He didn’t play a full college career, so I think he’s probably just scratching the surface. He’s got even more tools than I had. He’s definitely a more polished rusher than I was coming out of college.

“Like every NFL player, if he can stay healthy, he’ll have an opportunity to have a great career. And I specifically was very happy when I saw Green Bay, because he’s a good young lad.”

Kampman acknowledged he was often short-changed when it came to his athletic ability and technical skills as a pass rusher, with his success often being attributed to his effort and motor.

Now, the Packers believe they have a player who has the same work ethic but greater physical gifts. In the 6-foot-5, 272-pound Van Ness — nicknamed “Hercules” by his Iowa teammates — they believe have a versatile, hulking specimen who can attack quarterbacks and set the edge against the run outside, then can move inside on passing downs if need be.

“That was a label, for sure,” Kampman said of his try-hard persona. “But the reality is, I did try hard. And, I also had some ability. And those went hand-in-hand.

“I think for Lukas, that’ll be his opportunity, to really figure out who he is and who he’s going to be as a complete football player who plays both the run and the pass. He can do everything.”

Added Kampman, who was listed at 6-4 and 260 pounds during his playing career, chuckling: “He’s taller than I was. He’s a big young man. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does.”

Like many who watched the draft-night coverage on TV, Kampman saw highlights of Van Ness getting the better of Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski and Ohio State’s Paris Johnson, both of whom were first-round draft picks themselves.

Those clips showed Van Ness using power moves; the challenge for him will be to diversify his pass-rush approach.

“As you’ve previously seen, at Iowa we were very power-oriented. I’ve always had a lot of power in my game. I feel that’s the way I dominate,” said Van Ness, who has been working out in California with pass-rushing coach Eddy McGilvra, whose pupils include Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark, a two-time Pro Bowler. “I’m trying to expand my tool bag and just work on as much as possible.”

One reason the Packers were drawn to Van Ness — general manager Brian Gutekunst said he was one of the players the team had in mind when it moved up two spots in the first round in a pick swap with the New York Jets as part of the Aaron Rodgers trade — was the 21-year-old’s best football is in front of him.

Not only did Van Ness not start a single game at Iowa, but he came to football later than most and split time between football and hockey throughout high school growing up in Barrington, Ill. He also is adjusting to a scheme change, having played in a 4-3 defense at Iowa.

“There's a lot of growth (potential) there, and the physical traits are all there for him to grow. So there's no real limitation on him,” Gutekunst said. “I just think there's so much in front of him and I think that's where his best football will be.

“None of these guys come in polished very often, especially as pass rushers. There’s so much technique to that to be able to win in this league. It all takes them a little bit of time. But I would expect him to be able to help us this year.”

That’s Kampman’s expectation, too. Having played at Iowa himself, he waited his turn just like Van Ness did — he just stuck around for a full college career.

And with his final season with the Packers having come in 2009, Kampman’s parallel for Van Ness’ potential is fascinating: Clay Matthews, the Packers’ all-time sack leader (83.5) who was a one-year starter at USC before being a first-round pick that year.

“Obviously, he has the talent to be a starter. That wasn’t how he was utilized at Iowa, (but) in the end it’s probably to his advantage. He’s got more tread on his tires,” Kampman said. “I’ll liken it to when Clay Matthews got drafted. He played one year (on defense) really as a starter at SC. And what a great opportunity for him.

“The body only has so many reps in it. When you’re young, you don’t think so. But when you’re in Year 8, 9, 10, you find that out. He’ll probably look back on it and be glad he didn’t because he’s got the ability to develop and turn into the player he can be, reach his potential and he didn’t have to expend as many reps in college.

“One of the things I think about the NFL — and frankly any profession — is, over time, it helps reveal who you are, why you’re doing what you’re doing. There are first-round picks who come in and think, ‘Hey, I’m a big deal. I don’t have to work as hard.’ My view of Lukas is that will not be the case.

“I told the guys at Iowa who got drafted, ‘When you show up, make a good first impression. Yeah, if you’re drafted high, you’ll get more opportunities, but when you line up in a 1-on-1, your draft status doesn’t matter. What matters is, can you get to the quarterback or not?’ I think Lukas has that in him. I’m hopeful he continues to take that mindset. Because if he does, Green Bay is just such a wonderful place to focus on football.”

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