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Taking a Shot at That One Team

Jan. 14, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Nick Claytor did not seem defensive nor delirious Thursday afternoon. Either countenance would’ve been less surprising than his decision to scoot and shoot for the NFL with a year’s eligibility left at Georgia Tech.

To suggest that this announcement surprised folks would be understatement. But if he anticipated criticism or derision given that he was only a part-time starter, he didn’t show any inclination to over-rationalize. Nick had the same ol’ smile and light air about himself.

Rather than defending his decision, he made a presentable if not bullet-proof case for opting to go pro.

This is not to suggest the decision is right or wrong, but rather that it is somewhat explainable. There has been some process; this was not all whimsy. Suspend opinion for a few moments, and ride along . . .

The football fan, as a species (or sub species), tends to operate first on emotion, and secondarily – sometimes not at all – on logic. Difficult though it might be, we’ll go with logic first here.

Claytor’s body and skill set are a better match, arguably, for the style of most NFL offenses than for Tech’s attack. Head coach Paul Johnson did not recruit Claytor. He was a prized member of former coach Chan Gailey’s 2007 class for sake of his likeness to a road grader, a 6-foot-6, 320 (or more) -pound edition out of Gainesville High.

To use Johnson’s lingo, Claytor was conditioned to lean on and wrestle with defenders – to plow.

“As a large lineman, you get used to being big, used to dominating with your size,” Claytor said. “I cut that part of my skill set out. My skill set was pass blocking and being bigger than people. I had to learn how to run block.” Claytor had some serious retro-fitting to do because Johnson doesn’t covet road graders so much as pickup trucks with plows. Claytor had to learn to play more skillfully. And he had to re-shape his body, and re-purpose his skills in dramatic fashion.

In the summer of 2008, some nine or 10 months after Johnson was hired, it was almost startling to see Claytor when summer practice began. Had you not anticipated Tech’s linemen returning lighter, you might have thought he’d been sick.

“I lost like 45 pounds when that transition happened,” said Claytor, whom I seem to recall saying he was down to 278 that summer. “I think it shows what kind of player I am. I was willing to stay, sacrifice, and work harder than I ever worked in my life.”

There have been suggestions on Tech messages boards that Claytor’s decision might be based in part on need, that his family requirements may be evolving. We didn’t get into that Thursday.

Claytor said the NFL’s advisory board suggested he might be drafted between rounds five and seven.

He might not be drafted, much as guard Cord Howard was not drafted last year. Howard nonetheless made the Bills’ roster, and started at the end of the season for his old head coach, Gailey, and Tech O-line coach, Joe D’Alessandris, in Buffalo. Claytor said he has not spoken with Gailey nor coach D, but he might. He didn’t speak with his high school coach, either, and he does not yet have an agent so there are elements of this that confound.

He needs 10 more hours to graduate, and said he “absolutely” will get his degree either next fall (if the NFL doesn’t work out), or next spring. Frankly, he seemed at peace.

While he didn’t say he was a square peg in a round hole in Johnson’s offense, Claytor tipped his hat to Johnson and line coaches Mike Sewak and Todd Spencer. He said they helped round out his skill set.

“I think getting quicker, faster and at the same time getting stronger and learning to run block has helped me,” he said. “And using my heart . . . we had the No. 1 rushing attack. Our season didn’t turn out the way we wanted, but . . . something had to happen to make those stats happen.

“I appreciate everything they’ve done for me. Everybody is bigger, faster and stronger in the league, so that heart that I got [at Tech], I’m going to take that with me.”

Claytor, too, will take memories.

He said he considered transferring after Johnson was hired, but opted to stay in part because he didn’t want to leave so many friends. He lost four mates last year to the NFL draft, and had he stayed at Tech through next season more members of that ’07 class – those who did not redshirt – would not be back.

I sense that he got antsy, but just as there will be no replacing those memories there comes a point in college where the generation of new epic memories becomes more difficult. It’s an odd transition, and it began for him this time a year ago when Derrick Morgan, Jonathan Dwyer and Morgan Burnett – classmates – moved on to the next level ahead of schedule.

“I’ve got a picture of me and my brother in the hedges after we beat the University of Georgia [in `08]. That was a perfect moment. That picture is in the house,” he said. “When we beat FSU [in ’08 or ’09?], when we beat Virginia Tech [in `09] and they brought the goalposts down, Wake Forest overtime [`09], and Josh Nesbitt . . . just tossing the ball away – I think that’s the best celebration of all time. “In the room . . . it’s 1 in the morning, and you can’t sleep and you bang on the wall and Derrick is still up. We’d get up, wake up . . . Roddy [Jones] when he’s got a class at like 8. And fans really reached out to me.”

Claytor also recalled working with children while representing Tech football. He spoke warmly.

The reaction of fans has not been especially warm the past couple days.

They know that Claytor’s departure leaves one third [Phil Smith] of the three-man tackle rotation from the past season, and senior center Sean Bedford has graduated. What depth there appeared to be on the offensive line last season was not at tackle. Classmates Jones and Jason Peters also sought the opinions of the NFL committee, only Claytor has opted to leave a hole.

That’s what fans think of first and foremost, and that’s both an emotional and a logical reaction.

Claytor’s logic may not be completely understandable, especially in light of the possibility of an NFL lockout later this year.

There’s no sense bearing a grudge, however. What good does that do anyone? It’s his life. He gave earnest effort at Tech, and has cast his view elsewhere. Sometimes, everybody’s sense of timing in the same, and sometimes it is not. This process began a year ago, when his mates began moving on.

“It’s not like I thought all season I was going to the league [after the past season]; that’s not the thought process at all,” Claytor said. “After the season, I sat down and did some research. The NFL advisory committee gave me my grade. It’s in the lower rounds. That’s OK with me. All it takes is one shot, and I’m taking my shot to find that one team.

“I’m taking a shot at my dream, but if you don’t get your degree if you have 10 hours left, that’s unacceptable . . . and I doubt I could go home.”

Whadya think? stingdaily@gmail.com.

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