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Clayton's long road back paying off

For Antonneous Clayton, adversity has never been something from which he has shied away. In fact, in his own words, he has found ways to embrace it, use it and succeed in spite of it.

Things have not come easy for the redshirt-senior defensive end during his college football career to say the least. From signing with the University of Florida out of high school and dealing with injuries and other tough breaks during his time in Gainesville to transferring to Georgia Tech and having his eligibility waiver denied by the NCAA forcing him to sit out the entire 2019 season to having his 2020 season debut delayed by injury, it has been a struggle over the last few years. But once Clayton got on the field in the last three games vs. Syracuse, Louisville and Clemson, he made sure to make all those hard times and tough circumstances worth it.

Clayton with his mask on during his media session last week
Clayton with his mask on during his media session last week (Kelly Quinlan/JOL)

“I don’t know if I’m just used to adversity or if I’m just used to being patient,” said Clayton. “I didn’t have much of a choice but to be patient. So whenever the adversity came my way, I was just like ‘okay, it happened to me, I can’t too much dwell on that.’ So I just feel like if I condition myself to keep that same mindset over the course of the season I’ll be fine no matter what adversity hits me.

“It hasn’t been easy for me as far as the road to where I am now,” added Clayton. “It’s been a long road…went to Florida, things didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to. But I didn’t get upset. I didn’t waiver. I just kept my head down and kept working, listening to the coaches, listening to the older guys. I never complained about anything. Coming to Georgia Tech, I saw the culture change and how much the coaches were invested in me as far as me coming in and them showing me what I needed to work on and actually getting the opportunity to showcase my talents and actually contributing to the team. It’s an amazing feeling. I feel like I came a long way, but I also feel like it’s just beginning. (Louisville) was my first official game in my opinion as a Yellow Jacket, and I’m really excited about what the future brings for me and going forward with this team.”

Clayton was gradually worked into the game against Syracuse as he played limited snaps, but he was still able to account for two solo tackles. His real coming-out party happened last Friday in Georgia Tech’s impressive 46-27 win at home over Louisville as he played a huge part on defense, racking up five total tackles (two solo, three assists), including 2.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks. Clayton said when he got on the field against Syracuse, he didn’t quite feel fully himself, but after the week of full reps at practice in preparation for Louisville, he started to feel a little more in the groove.

“I was kind of limited that week (for Syracuse) coming off an injury so I tried to work my way into the game, and then having to play as many snaps as I did Friday (vs. Louisville), I was more so kind of feeling myself back into the game,” said Clayton. “After the Syracuse game, playing Louisville, as preparation went on I got a whole lot more reps, a lot more looks, a lot more plays to where I could feel my body out and get my body back into game-playing shape. Just going through last week’s process leading up to the game, it really showed on (that) Friday.”

Clayton added that it didn’t really sink in that he had recorded his first sack during the game against Louisville, rather he finally took it in after the huge win that he helped the team accomplish.

“I really can’t even explain it,” said Clayton. “I was so into the game. I’m going to the sideline, telling my teammates ‘I want to win, I want to win, I want to win.’ My mindset was just next play…get the sack, celebrate with my teammates, but at the end of the day the game was still going on so I more so waited til that clock hit zeroes before I started celebrating anything.”

Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins said Clayton’s incredible toughness and attitude is something that has become apparent during his time in the program, and that it is what makes him such a positive addition to the team.

“Just proud of him…his demeanor, his attitude, everything that he’s been through in his college career, even since he’s been here, and how he’s managed it with class, with poise, with grace,” said Collins.

That perseverance paid off with a special honor this week as Collins awarded Clayton with a number change. Clayton will wear No. 9 going forward this season as he was welcomed to the group of single-digit numbers, which is reserved for leaders according to Collins.

“I’m excited,” said Clayton. “It’s a true honor to be able to wear a single digit. I knew coming in here everything I did and wanted to be and wanted to have was going to be earned. Everything in this program is earned, and what I did, I just put in the work. The specifics behind this jersey, Coach Collins said the best D-lineman gets the jersey, and that’s not just dealing with how you play on Saturdays or Fridays. That’s what you’re doing in practice…is he doing his job in practice, is he where he’s supposed to be, is he encouraging his teammates. The whole ordeal behind the single digits is we look to those guys as leaders on our team and how those guys are going to help us win. So I feel like having this jersey is a real honor. I don’t feel like it’s really sunk in yet because I’m so tuned into the gameplan and what we’re supposed to do. So when I walked in it was just in my locker so I said ‘okay, I guess I’m No. 9 now.’ It’s a great honor. Not every guy gets to wear gets to wear these jerseys so it’s a great honor.”

Many inside and outside the program believed before Clayton even played a game for Georgia Tech that he had an NFL future in front of him. As far as right now, Clayton said he isn’t even thinking about that. Rather, he is focused on what he can do to help the Jackets win games this season.

“At the end of the day, I haven’t even thought about that,” said Clayton. “I haven’t thought about The League. I haven’t thought about coming back. I haven’t thought about anything like that at all. What tends to happen is guys get focused on the wrong things, draft stock or all that type of stuff, and then it leaks into their play, and it really shows. You just can’t be out there worrying about your draft stock. What you need to be out there worried about is doing your job and executing, make sure you’re where you’re supposed to be so we can get the team win. So I feel like the answers to those questions are going to come later, but as far as right now until this season is over with, I’m just strictly worried about my team and what I can do to help us win.”

What is in the immediate future for Clayton and the Yellow Jackets is a trip to Boston to face the Eagles as they aim to shake off a tough game last Saturday against Clemson.