Collins had recruited Clayton out of Dooly County as part of Florida’s 2016 class when he was defensive coordinator with the Gators on the staff of Jim McElwain. Clayton was a prized recruit – he was the No. 27 recruit in the country, the No. 2 weakside defensive end and the No. 4 player in the state of Georgia (247Sports Composite). Alabama, Clemson, Auburn and Florida State were among his suitors.
Collins and Clayton were at Florida together for one season, 2016, before Collins left to take the head-coaching job at Temple. Collins left an impression on Clayton.
“He was the loudest one whenever I got a sack in practice,” Clayton said. “He’ll tell you that.”
Clayton’s career did not unfold as expected, though. In 2016, with Collins, he played in five games as a freshman before a season-ending injury before the 11th game of the season (he also reportedly contracted a virus during the preseason.)
He appeared in nine games in 2017 in a backup role as a sophomore with seven tackles. Clayton said that then-defensive-line coach Chris Rumph “told me I’ve got to wait my time.”
Going into 2018, he put on 35 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame to get to 255 pounds as an edge rusher for new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. He had hopes for a breakthrough season, but fell down the depth chart (two ends ahead of him were invited to the draft combine).
Early on in the season, the decision was made for him to redshirt so he could continue to gain weight and learn the defense. He did use the time to add strength. Clayton said that he can do 30 bench-press reps at 225 pounds, which is more than all but four defensive line put up at the combine.
When Grantham spoke with reporters in December in advance of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta, he did not sound like someone who was down on Clayton.
"He's really a hybrid between outside linebacker and defensive end," Grantham said. "He works his tail off. He's got some twitch. He's got a motor. It's just trying to find the right combination, the right fit for him."
Clayton said he was intending to stay at Florida for his final two seasons — “I’m not the type of guy to quit,” he said — until his mother, Caronica, developed a medical issue. Clayton declined to address the matter further, but said that “I need to be close to my mom.” Atlanta is about a two-hour drive from Dooly County, which is along I-75 south of Warner Robins. It’s about three hours from Gainesville, Fla. As his need to be closer to home became clear, Clayton said that Collins being at Tech was like “the stars aligning.”
His mother’s condition would make Clayton a candidate to receive a hardship waiver and be able to play immediately, which is his hope. (Clayton also has a son, Antonneous Jr., who is in Gainesville. He was not sure how that matter will be resolved.) If he receives a waiver, he will have two seasons of eligibility remaining. Otherwise, he would have to sit out the 2019 season and have one season in 2020.
As for his play, the hope is that that a clear path to playing time and being reunited with Collins can help him play at the level projected by his recruiting ranking.
“Be a standout, big-time player,” Clayton said of his goals for himself. “That’s always expected from myself when I walk on the field. I expect to make big plays. I’m supposed to do that.”
He joins a defensive line in dire need of depth and playmakers. No returning defensive lineman had a sack last season or even a tackle for loss. The Jackets have not had an edge rusher with more than 5.5 sacks in a season since Jeremiah Attaochu in 2013. For whatever weight recruiting rankings carry, Tech has not had a player on the roster with a national ranking higher than Clayton’s since Calvin Johnson, who was 24th in the 2004 class.
If he can be the sort of player that merited the highest level of recruiting attention in high school, it could be a game-changer for Collins’ first season.
It’s gotten off to a good start, at least. When Clayton visited Tech’s spring practice Saturday morning, “he just came up and gave me a hug, a passionate one. Nice to be working with the old boss.”