From the moment a five-star player steps on campus, expectations are through the roof. They are expected to throw the team on their shoulders from the first down they play in a college uniform. That’s a lot of pressure to put on an 18-year-old kid.
What most fail to realize is stars mean very little once players sign that dotted line. Adjusting to the college game is hard, and every player handles it differently, whether they had five stars next to their name or none.
For sophomore Antonneous Clayton, that adjustment took some time. As the only five-star player in the Florida Gators 2016 signing class, the buzz surrounding him was real, but it soon fizzled out after the already-undersized defensive end lost 20 pounds due to an illness during fall camp and fell behind.
“It was really, really hard, man,” said Clayton. “You’re going up against guys like Waany [Jawaan Taylor] who’s like 350 or Tez [Martez Ivey] who’s like 305, man. Just trying to set the edge against those guys, it’s really, really hard because those guys are not only big, but they’re strong. They’re really strong guys. I worked out with these guys, I could see how they push. Me coming in at 220, it just wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough.”
Along with coming in undersized and the even bigger setback of the illness, Clayton struggled to learn the playbook as a freshman. With so much going against him, it looked like he was headed for a redshirt, but he was finally called on to make his debut against Vanderbilt a month into the season.
He recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter in the 13-6 win over Vandy, had two quarterback hurries and two tackles against Missouri the following game. Then, there were moments he looked like a freshman and his troubles with grasping the playbook showed. Defensive line coach Chris Rumph stayed on him hard the whole season for missing assignments, but he took on the challenge.
“Oh, he would get on me very, very hard,” Clayton said. “It’s not the fact that I didn’t want him to get onto me, but I liked that he got onto me because when a coach gets onto you like that, especially here, he knows your potential. And then just him always getting onto me, always yelling at me, just doing whatever a coach is supposed to do, really shows that I have to get my stuff right. I’m going to have to play. Guys like CeCe [Jefferson] and Jabari [Zuniga] are not going to be here forever. You’re going to be the next guy stepping up. I really have to take on the torch and take on the responsibility of stepping up and executing every single day.”
Clayton continued working and was beginning to feel a little more comfortable in the defense when the worst thing that could’ve happened for him, did happen. He sprained his UCL (ligament inside the elbow) while getting ready for the Florida State game and was forced to miss the final two games of the regular season and the bowl game.
“It is fueling me right now,” he said of his injury. “It’s like that kind of stopped me. That was kind of going to be my signature breakout game in a way, but everything happens for a reason. It wasn’t my time, so God kind of caused that to happen. I just think it was more of a stronger comeback than a setback.”
Clayton is now healthy and poised to make that comeback happen this season. He is bigger, stronger and smarter.
He was disappointed to go down with the injury, but he completely immersed himself in the rehab process, and it is paying off.
“I didn’t let the injury get me down too much,” said Clayton. “I stayed prayed up. I put it in God’s hand and trusted our trainers getting me back healthy. My recovery was like every morning I’m heading to the training room getting treatment. After the games, before the games, like during school I’d get up early and come in at like 7 a.m., get a lot more treatment. Keep doing it and repeating that every single day. I just got better. I’m benching 360 now. I just feel a whole lot better.”
Clayton looks a lot better, too. He’s put on 40 pounds since he arrived last season and says he is now weighing in around 260.
He has made nutrition one of his biggest focuses over the offseason to be able to put on good weight. Since getting on a strict plan with the nutritionist, Clayton’s diet has consisted of a lot of leaner, healthier foods like baked chicken, mashed potatoes and broccoli.
After feeling overpowered in practices and SEC play last year, his confidence is at an all-time high to be able to handle the strong offensive linemen he will face game in and game out this season.
“It’s going to translate a lot, because we’re in the SEC,” he said. “Of course, guys like to run the ball. Us being defensive ends, we’re the last guy on the line. We’re the last guy the defense’s got on the defensive line. So if they run the ball to our side, we kind of attack the tackle and kind of set the edge. Me gaining that weight, it helps me a lot more. It’s a lot easier.”
Clayton was not only motivated to transform his body for his sophomore season, but to learn the defense inside and out. He studies every day to be sure he is better prepared than he was a year ago.
His newfound confidence and game speed were apparent in the spring game as he was all over the field with five tackles and a sack. Without having to question himself, he is able to play faster and not overthink things, something defensive coordinator Randy Shannon has made his goal since taking over the defense.
“I felt behind,” he said, recalling last season. “I wasn’t really confident in learning the plays. That was one of the main reasons I didn’t play a lot last year. If the coaches don’t trust you, you’re not going to play. That’s been one of the main reasons why my drive has been what it is this offseason, especially heading toward camp. After every practice, I’m always in the playbook. Every single day I’m in the playbook. Then just being in that playbook has allowed me to play faster than I really was playing. I know how fast I am, but the fact I didn’t know the playbook and I’m kind guessing when I get into my stance, like kind of guessing. That’s kind of like cutting my speed in half and I’m not really playing up to my potential. Now that I’m in my playbook, I’m playing way faster.”
After a rough start to his career, many went as far as calling him a bust. Clayton saw the doubters, but chose not to pay them much mind. Now, all he can do is sit back and laugh. As a key piece to the defensive line this season, he plans on just letting his play do the talking and helping Florida reach its main goal.
“I just look at them and smile,” said Clayton. “My uncle would text me and say ‘Oh, so and so said this about you.’ I’m just like ‘I don’t care.’ What I’m going to focus on right now is us winning a national championship and what I can do to support my team to win a national championship. I could really care less about a tweet or a Facebook post or an Instagram. I could care less.”
Clayton is now ready to put his first season behind him and look to the future, and it is looking bright. He is on a mission to prove himself in 2017.
“Right now, I have a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “All the doubters, all the people saying that I’m a bust, all the things like that, every day, I’m playing with a chip on my shoulder. I’m playing like ‘Man, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ I was already supposed to be doing this. This should be nothing new to me.”