Antonneous Clayton back with Georgia Tech football team

(EDNOTE: This photo is for Ken Sugiura’s story) October 9, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's defensive lineman Antonneous Clayton (11) during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Friday, October 9, 2020. Georgia Tech's won 46-27 over the Louisville. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
(EDNOTE: This photo is for Ken Sugiura’s story) October 9, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's defensive lineman Antonneous Clayton (11) during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Friday, October 9, 2020. Georgia Tech's won 46-27 over the Louisville. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Five months after stepping away from football to attend to the mounting challenges of his life, Georgia Tech defensive end Antonneous Clayton is back among teammates and coaches. As the Yellow Jackets progress through spring practice, he is trying to become a more consistent player and hone details such as his stance, obstacles far preferable to those that he said overwhelmed him last winter.

“I’m not really concerned about anything else,” Clayton said Thursday. “I’ve kind of handled all of my off-field issues at this point. I’m having fun right now. This is the happiest I’ve been playing football in a very long time, a very long time.”

For Clayton, 2020 was a set of unrelenting trials, as it was for so many. Clayton came to Tech as a celebrated transfer in 2019 from Florida and had to sit out that season after his request for an immediate-eligibility waiver was denied. Last year, he was entering his senior season – potentially his final opportunity to prove himself as an NFL prospect after three unremarkable seasons with the Gators – amid uncertainty that the season would even be played.

Beyond that, Clayton was caring for his young son Antonneous Jr. Then, he missed the first two games with what he described as a medical condition, which also put him behind in his classes and lowered his conditioning level.

After that setback, Clayton played five games, starting four. But, on Dec. 1., with what proved to be two games remaining, he announced that he would not finish the season for what he cited as mental-health reasons. He added that he planned to return for the next season, using the extra season of eligibility granted by the NCAA to fall- and winter-sports athletes because of COVID-19.

Trying to catch up on his rigorous schoolwork, get his body in condition to play at a high level and also take care of his son had become too much.

“So, trying to balance those two things, it was kind of getting overwhelming,” Clayton said. “And at the same time, being a full-time dad, because my son was staying with me at the time. It got to a point where I had to step away and take care of personal things outside of football.”

Clayton said that, had he not made the decision, he would have fallen academically ineligible.

Clayton expressed his gratitude for coaches and teammates who were “100%” behind him when he opted out.

“They were checking on me constantly,” Clayton said. “Georgia Tech did a great job with their resources, helping me out, talking me throughout the whole process.”

Clayton’s struggles registered with defensive end/outside linebackers coach Marco Coleman.

“It was a crazy year last year for everybody,” he said. “That COVID really just disrupted the situation for the entire team. No one was excluded from it, including him.”

Following the season, Coleman said the question “for a lot of us” was how Clayton would come back.

“And he’s been a model citizen since he’s been back,” Coleman said. “He’s definitely the adult in the room. His experience and tenure shows. That’s off the field. On the field, we still have some fundamental things to continue to work on. That’s the beauty of having spring football.”

Coleman assessed Clayton’s play in 2020 as “up and down.” His play in the spring has been much more consistent, he added. In his five games last season, Clayton recorded nine tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He had five of the tackles and all of the tackles for loss/sacks against Louisville.

Clayton welcomes the coaching and accountability from Coleman and others, such as defensive line coach Larry Knight and coach Geoff Collins, who recruited and coached Clayton as defensive coordinator at Florida. They’re all trying to bring to the surface the potential that prompted Clayton to be ranked the No. 27 prospect in the country in the 2016 class (247Sports Composite) coming out of Dooly County High.

“When I look back on my past, compared to when I first got here to the man I’ve become today, I didn’t realize how much work that I had to work on myself till I got here getting the coaching,” Clayton said.

Majoring in history, technology and society, Clayton said he is on track to graduate at the end of the semester, has two internships lined up and expects to have more time to focus on football. He said he is down 10 pounds – he is listed at 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds – and is in better cardiovascular shape.

“I feel great,” he said.

It’s far different from how he felt last fall.

“Fast forward to now, I’m just glad they’re welcoming me back with open arms, and I’m ready to be fully committed to the team,” Clayton said. “Hopefully have a really, really great season. Not just me, but the team as a whole.”

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