On the field at last, Antonneous Clayton’s patience is rewarded

(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

Under the lights of Bobby Dodd Stadium, Antonneous Clayton drove back offensive tackles, crumpling pockets. He shed blocks to pull down running backs. He manhandled a Louisville tight end and wrestled down Cardinals quarterback Malik Cunningham for a critical third-down sack.

It wasn’t the Georgia Tech defensive end’s debut – that had come two weeks ago against Syracuse – but his play in the Yellow Jackets' 46-27 win over the Cardinals on Friday was a defining moment.

“Antonneous definitely came out ready (Friday),” defensive end Jordan Domineck said after the game. “He was already on the jump from as soon as he woke up. Like, he woke up yelling, screaming. I almost heard him at 5:30 in the morning going crazy. It’s great having him back. It’s great having him be able to get back into the rhythm of playing football after so long.”

Clayton’s college career has been a trial of his patience. A four-star prospect out of Dooly County High (he was a top-30 prospect nationally in the 2016 class by the measure of 247Sports Composite), Clayton played a total of 17 games in three seasons at Florida as a backup, unable to move up the depth chart. In 2018, he played three games in a rare mid-career redshirt, making one tackle.

At Florida, “things didn’t turn out the way I wanted to, but I didn’t get upset, I didn’t waver,” Clayton said. “I just kept my head down and kept working, listening to the coaches, listening to the older guys.”

He transferred to Tech in 2019 – because of his mother’s medical condition, he said at the time – and rejoined coach Geoff Collins, who had recruited him to Florida. Clayton hoped to receive an immediate-eligibility waiver to play. But his request and a subsequent appeal were turned down by the NCAA, leaving him with one season of eligibility.

The decision drew the ire of coach Geoff Collins, who asserted that the denial showed that “the NCAA does not have the best interests of the student-athlete in mind.”

In that time, Clayton also has balanced football and school with being a father to Antonneous Jr. After his appeal was turned down, he shifted his focus to playing on the scout team and helping the offensive line prepare for games. At the start of this season, after the uncertainty of the offseason, he had to wait again as an injury kept him out of the first two games of the season.

“I don’t know if I’m just used to adversity or I’m just used to being patient or if I didn’t have much of a choice but to be patient,” Clayton said. “So whenever adversity just came my way, I was like, ‘OK, that happened to me. I can’t too much dwell on that.’”

His cited his performance against Syracuse on Sept. 26 as an example. Not completely healthy and playing more snaps than was planned because of an injury to defensive end Sylvain Yondjouen, Clayton made only a handful of impactful plays in the loss to the Orange. His response was to learn what he could from the game video and use practice to improve to hone his game and his conditioning.

Even in that undistinguished debut, Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker was still elated for Clayton, indicative of the appreciation and respect that teammates and coaches have built up for him.

“It was one of those moments, if you can detach yourself from circumstances and outcomes, you’re happy for that kid,” Thacker said. “If the goal is for him to have a positive experience here in college football, he has gone through a lot. He has battled through adversity, and I was happy for him in that moment.”

Clayton’s dedication produced results. In his first career start, Clayton collected two sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss and five tackles total. Aside from his pass-rush pressure, he held the point against the run, preventing Cardinals running backs from turning downfield and enabling teammates to make tackles close to the line of scrimmage.

“Just going through last week’s (practice) process, and leading up to the game, it really showed on Friday,” Clayton said.

Collins said that Clayton’s physical activity in the game, tracked by the team’s wearable GPS devices, “shattered” all the records for defensive linemen since he and his staff began using the technology in his first season at Temple in 2017 to track data such as top speed, changes of direction and explosive bursts.

Collins recognized Clayton’s dedication this week, awarding him a single-digit jersey, an emblem representing his commitment and leadership. Previously No. 11, Clayton will wear No. 9 starting with the Jackets' game Saturday against No. 1 Clemson.

“So when I walked in, it was just in my locker,” Clayton said with a laugh. “So I was just like, ‘OK, I guess I’m No. 9 now.’ But it’s a great honor. Not every guy gets to wear these jerseys.”

Collins doesn’t need much prodding to share his feelings about Clayton.

“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,” Collins said.

With a national TV matchup against the No. 1 team in the country coming Saturday, Clayton will have widespread attention to demonstrate his ability, including to NFL scouts. With the NCAA granting all fall-sports athletes an extra season of eligibility, Clayton could come back in 2021 for a second senior season, but also could enter the NFL draft. Clayton said he hasn’t given his football future any thought.

“The answers to those questions are going to come later,” he said. “But as far as right now, until this season’s over with, I’m just strictly worried about my team and what I can do to help us win.”

Spoken like someone who has waited a long time for this moment.

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