GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Antonneous Clayton knows what has been said about him on social media and within the Florida fan base, how people view his performance last season relative to his 5-star recruiting ranking.
He says his uncle would text him the comments he saw online, and, as much as Clayton tried to block it all out, he’s plenty aware of the sentiments that exist.
“Right now, I have like a chip on my shoulder. All the doubters, all the people saying that I’m a bust, all the things like that, every day I’m playing with a chip on my shoulder,” Clayton said this week. “Every single play I’m like, ‘Man, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I was already supposed to be doing this. This should be nothing new to me.'”
The highly-touted defensive end from Vienna, Ga., was given the elite 5-star rating by Rivals.com and was ranked the No. 26 overall prospect in the 2016 signing class according to the 247Sports composite.
But he played sparingly as a freshman, getting into parts of five games and finishing tied for 31st on the team with 3 tackles, matched by fifth-string running back and special teams contributor Mark Herndon among others.
Clayton is bluntly honest about his struggles last season, willing to admit that he wasn’t physically ready or ever really confident in his knowledge of the playbook.
He is equally candid and convincing when he says how far he’s come since then.
“I felt behind. I wasn’t really confident in learning the plays. That was one of the main reasons why I didn’t play a lot last year. Just because if the coaches don’t trust you, you’re not going to play,” he said. “That’s been one of the main reasons why my drive has been what it is this offseason, especially heading toward camp. After every practice, I’m always in the playbook. Every single day I’m in the playbook. Then just being in that playbook has allowed me to play faster than what I really was playing.
“I know how fast I am, but the fact I didn’t know the playbook and I’m kind guessing when I get in my stance … that [was] like cutting my speed in half and I’m not really playing up to my potential. Now that I’m in my playbook, I’m playing way faster.”
Beyond that, he’s added 40 pounds to get up to 260, he said.
While a 5-star recruiting rating creates expectations that a player is poised to make an immediate impact, Clayton says he felt physically overmatched last fall at 220 pounds.
Even in practice.
“It was really, really hard, man. You’re going up against guys like Waany [Jawaan Taylor], who’s like 350, or Tez [Martez Ivey], who’s like 305. Just trying to set the edge against those guys, it’s really, really hard because those guys are not only big but they’re strong. They’re really strong guys,” he said. “Me coming in at 220, it just wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough.”
Florida coach Jim McElwain said he sees a different Clayton this camp, and not just in terms of his physical growth.
One of the frustrations for the coaching staff last year, tied to Clayton’s admission about his struggles with the playbook, is that it seemed like the young defensive end was sometimes focused so much on trying to get a sack that he’d abandon his other responsibilities and open up rush lanes for the opposing offense.
McElwain said he sees a better understanding in that regard from Clayton now.
“You saw the guy, look at how much different he’s looked [than] he did when he walked in here as a freshman. I do know this, he still will be a threat and should be a weapon for us in some third-down rabbit packages and some things like that,” McElwain said. “Play to his strengths but let’s continue to help him be an every-down player, and that’s what he’s been working on. I’m proud of him.”
That echoes the observations from Clayton’s teammates.
“I think the game slowed down for him,” fellow defensive end Keivonnis Davis said. “You can definitely tell the game slowed down for him. He was just like so after getting a sack [last year] but now he’s got the run game down. He’s patient.”
Said Taylor, the Gators’ right tackle: “Yeah, a lot different physically. Got a lot bigger, lot stronger. He’s still the same speed so he’s looking a lot better this season coming up.”
Clayton’s freshman frustrations culminated when he “sprung” the UCL in his elbow while warming up for the Florida State game, as he explained it. He doesn’t feel limited in any way now, though, and says he’s got his bench press up to 360 pounds.
Physically and mentally, he feels refreshed after his trying first season.
What that all means for 2017 is yet to be seen. The Gators have depth at defensive end, with junior CeCe Jefferson, redshirt sophomore Jabari Zuniga (team-high 5 sacks last year) and fifth-year senior Jordan Sherit looking like the top options in the rotation.
Davis, who tallied 1.5 sacks last fall, is in the mix as well, and sophomore Jachai Polite has been mentioned as a player to watch by teammates.
So Clayton faces plenty of competition. He was lined up with the second-team defense during the opening “fastball” period at practice Thursday, the last session open to the media.
But he’s confident his breakout season is coming.
“You’ll have to wait and see, man,” he said. “I’m just going to stay prayed up, I’m going to take it one day at a time, one practice at a time especially. And whatever happens, happens. When I get my opportunity I’m just going to make the best of it.”