ATLANTA (August 16) — The speed and quickness that make defensive end Felipe Claybrooks a strong pass rusher are skills that the Georgia Tech junior honed not only on the gridiron, but on the soccer field.
“In high school, I played soccer in eighth and ninth grade and then my senior year,” said Claybrooks, who attended tiny Decatur (Ga.) High, a Class A school that didn’t have spring football.
“I wanted to be in shape when I got here. With all the running and using your feet, soccer really does help your coordination and quickness.
“I played striker because that’s exciting,” continued Claybrooks, who now prefers to strike quarterbacks rather than soccer balls. “I scored three or four goals my senior year.”
An Academic All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection in 1998, Claybrooks served an internship with the Georgia State Soccer Association over the summer.
“I worked out in the mornings and then worked at the Georgia State Soccer Association in the afternoons,” he said. “I worked on the sponsorship package for a big soccer tournament, and I developed maps to all the soccer fields to put on a website.”
Claybrooks has also worked as a referee for youth and high school soccer games, and at 6-4 and 255 pounds, he likely doesn’t entertain many protests when he pulls out a yellow card.
Just like an international soccer star, Claybrooks’ given name has all but given way to a one-word moniker. Not Pele or Ronaldo, but Tito, which he earned as a freshman.
“I was watching a comedy special,” he explained, “and the comedian was imitating Michael Jackson. He kept saying, ‘Tito,’ like he was talking to Michael Jackson’s brother.
“After that, whenever I didn’t know someone’s name, I just said Tito. Pretty soon, everyone started calling me Tito, and it just stuck.”
Whatever his name, the Georgia Tech coaches will be looking to call Claybrooks one of the leaders of the Rambling Wreck defense.
“I don’t necessarily have the most experience on the defensive line, but I think I’m the most vocal,” said Claybrooks. “Now that I have a starting role, I’m definitely going to try to be a leader.”
The biggest challenge for Claybrooks is becoming an every-down player. Last season, he was used primarily as a pass rush specialist, a role in which he managed 10 quarterback sacks despite averaging fewer than 30 snaps per game.
After ranking third in the league in sacks with the fourth-best season total in Georgia Tech history, Claybrooks enters his junior season with his name not only in the starting lineup, but on several preseason all-conference teams.
“Ten sacks, that’s a lot, but I was always really fresh when I came into the game for the passing downs,” said Claybrooks, who notched 37 tackles, four pass breakups, four pressures, an interception and a caused fumble to go along with his 10 sacks.
“The biggest challenge in starting is going two or three plays and then rushing the passer. I want to get rid of all the doubts that people have about me playing the run. I think people are going to be watching closely and critiquing how I play the run.”
But the former striker will keep striking those quarterbacks, too.