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By Andy Demetra (The “Voice of the Yellow Jackets”) | Inside The Chart
Antonneous Clayton, Sr. admits he didn’t notice it at first.
The redshirt senior defensive end strolled to his locker Tuesday morning, ready to get dressed for Georgia Tech’s 9 a.m. practice. Perhaps he was already locked in for a crucial day of game plan installation at the Rose Bowl Practice Field and John and Mary Brock Football Practice Facility. Perhaps he still needed to shake the last few cobwebs from the morning. But when Clayton opened his locker stall, it took him a few seconds to realize the new navy practice jersey dangling from its hook.
“I was like, ‘This is a smaller jersey. This isn’t mine,’” the 6-3, 270-pounder recalled.
But it was. Unbeknownst to Clayton, head coach Geoff Collins had pulled a surprise midseason switch, changing Clayton’s uniform number from 11 to 9. He’ll make his debut in it Saturday when Georgia Tech faces No. 1 Clemson at Bobby Dodd Stadium (Noon ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Learfield IMG College).
Collins doesn’t give out single digits lightly. He reserves them only for the top leaders and teammates in his program. It’s an honor sought by many, bestowed on few. He can’t recall another instance where he changed someone’s number to a single digit during the season.
Clayton, he believed, was worthy of the precedent.
“Everything that Antonneous has gone through since he’s been here – just the toughness, the grit, the resilience – all the things that we value in this program,” Collins said, ticking off the reasons for the switch. He added that a group of players led by seniors David Curry and Jerry Howard, Jr., themselves single-digit wearers, approached him the Sunday before Tech’s season opener against Florida State imploring him to change Clayton’s number. After his two-sack performance in Georgia Tech’s 46-27 win over Louisville last Friday, Collins decided the timing was right.
For his part, Clayton laughed off his initial confusion. He joked afterwards that he’ll need to change his social media handles soon – they all include the number 11. But he understood the gravity of what hung in his locker.
“I knew coming in here that everything I did, and wanted to be, and wanted to have, was going to be earned. Everything in this program has to be earned. What I did, I just put in the work,” the Vienna, Ga., native said, adding that he immediately called his mom and uncle to share the news.
𝐒𝐈𝐍𝐆𝐋𝐄 𝐃𝐈𝐆𝐈𝐓 #️⃣9️⃣
— Georgia Tech Football (@GeorgiaTechFB) October 14, 2020
Clayton has grown used to the unexpected – just not in the way he’d prefer. He’s had to persevere through more than most to reach the field at Tech, his career marked by one sudden setback after another.
“His track to get to this point – it’s been real tough. He’s shown enormous mental and emotional toughness to get himself to the point where he can get on the field,” said defensive ends coach Marco Coleman.
Ranked the No. 27 player nationally according to the 247Sports composite ratings when he graduated from Dooly County High School, Clayton originally signed with Florida – and then-defensive coordinator Geoff Collins – in 2016. An injury ended his true freshman season after five games, then stunted his climb up the depth chart as a sophomore. Clayton redshirted as a junior, appearing in just three games for the Gators, all blowouts. Across three seasons, he only recorded 10 total tackles.
When he sought a fresh start closer to home, citing in part his mom’s health, he thought back to the connection he made with the man who recruited him to Gainesville. Clayton still keeps a picture of him and Collins posing together during Collins’ first visit to his high school.
Clayton transferred to Tech and enrolled in January 2019, becoming the Yellow Jackets’ highest-rated signee since Calvin Johnson. Tech’s coaches felt sanguine about his prospects of getting an immediate eligibility waiver. Then, a day before Georgia Tech’s season opener against Clemson on August 29 of last year, he received the bitter news that his waiver had been denied. Instead of suiting up in Death Valley against the defending national champions, Clayton stayed behind in Atlanta, watching the game on television while coping with the realization that he wouldn’t be playing at all that season.
“It was kind of surreal. I went back to my apartment. I was there a little bit. A bunch of guys, we went to the stadium and we watched the game in the players’ lounge,” Clayton recalled of that night.
Though disappointed, he didn’t spend the year idly. During the week he became a scout-team terror, showcasing the light feet and heavy hands that made him such a touted prospect in high school. On game days at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Georgia Tech’s coaches allowed him to mingle on the sidelines with his fellow defensive ends. He gave teammates advice on pass rushing techniques based on what he had observed from opposing offensive linemen. Occasionally, he brought a teammate behind the bench to physically go through moves with him.
“When the game started, I’d be as locked-in as any other coach,” Clayton explained. “We’re going to win together. We’re going to lose together. So I have to be as keyed in as those guys are.”
That attitude earned him the respect – and open ears – of his teammates.
“’I’m hungry.’ He said that all the time. When he first got here, I was his roommate, and I could tell he was a man on a mission. He had a set goal, a set vision, and he wasn’t going to let anybody deter it,” said fellow defensive end Jordan Domineck.
At long last, Clayton was prepared to put those observations into practice in 2020. Then Covid-19 shut down Georgia Tech’s spring practice. Then a medical condition caused him to miss Tech’s first two games against Florida State and UCF.
“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 to be patient,” Clayton said of his latest roadblocks.
He finally made his debut September 26 against Syracuse, 679 days after his last appearance for Florida. Defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker planned to work him back conservatively, targeting him for around 20 plays, but a first-quarter injury to sophomore Sylvain Yondjouen caused his snap count to more than double. Clayton finished with a modest two tackles.
Any rust washed away quickly. Against Louisville, Collins says his numbers on Georgia Tech’s Catapult GPS system, which measures speed and other explosive movements, were the highest they had seen in a defensive lineman since his staff started using the devices three-and-a-half years ago. He racked up his first sack on Louisville’s opening drive of the third quarter, snuffing out the Cardinals on a third-and-two.
Clayton said he was too preoccupied with getting off the field on third down to celebrate.
“I didn’t know it was a sack. I tackled [the quarterback] and was like, ‘Alright, it’s time for the next play,’” he said.
He didn’t miss his chance to celebrate in the fourth quarter. With Georgia Tech leading 39-27 and Louisville facing a fourth-and-15 at its own 20 with 1:30 left, Clayton bullied his blocker and dropped quarterback Malik Cunningham for a two-yard loss. Coleman and strength and conditioning coach Lew Caralla engulfed him in a bear hug after he reached the sidelines (no small feat, given Coleman’s normally stone-faced demeanor).
“I felt like I was getting that sack for Coach Coleman or my teammates. It wasn’t really about me,” Clayton said.
“I’m extremely excited for him,” remarked Coleman, “but there’s a lot of work to get done. We can’t relax just now.”
Clayton doesn’t plan on it. While he’s proud of the perseverance he’s shown to reach the field, he knows a single-digit number is only an invitation to work harder. He can’t wait to absorb the next set of corrections from Coleman, who pushes him relentlessly (“In Coach Coleman’s eyes, you’re not good enough – and I don’t mean that in a bad way”). On Saturday, he’ll finally get his chance to face Clemson, the team he could only watch in silent agony from the players’ lounge last August.
“It’s a grown man’s game this week,” he said.
But before that, Clayton was given one last surprise Thursday. After their practice at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Collins named Clayton one of his four game captains against the Tigers. His No. 9 jersey will also feature one of the Yellow Jackets’ gold crown decals with a navy “C” stitched into it.
He may be wearing a new number Saturday. But Antonneous Clayton is still a defensive end. He’d much rather have a quarterback’s number.