ATLANTA — Despite a 5-star rating from Rivals, defensive end Antonneous Clayton didn’t come to Florida with a big head or unrealistic goals.
However, his transition to SEC football was harder than he expected.
“Basically, for me, this season was like a wake-up call,” Clayton said after the SEC championship game. “I wasn’t ready to play as a freshman as much as I thought.”
Clayton committed to Florida over Auburn, Florida State and a host of others, including Alabama, Clemson and Michigan. He became one of the nation’s top-ranked recruits after dominating in practices for the Under Armour All-America Game.
But shortly after reporting to Florida, the 235-pound pass rusher lost 20 pounds because of an illness. His weight — and youth — hindered him in fall camp.
“It was frustrating, but I didn’t let it get to me,” Clayton said. “In all, it was a humbling experience.”
Clayton did not play during the first month of the season and appeared to be a redshirt candidate. But he made his debut at Vanderbilt and recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter. The following game against Missouri, he registered 2 quarterback hurries and 2 tackles.
But there would be more bumps along the way for Clayton. On Florida’s fourth-down stop against Georgia late in the game, he did not know what to do on the play.
“I was just running around,” Clayton admitted. “I still have to learn the plays and get better. But for the season as a whole, I think I learned a lot and got into the routine — waking up early, workouts, class. I need to have a tremendous offseason, but I’m really looking forward to next year.”
Clayton is eager to get healthy. He injured an arm before the Florida State game and missed the final two contests, finishing his 2016 campaign with 3 tackles in five games.
“We had a lot of guys hurt this year, so my injury brought me to their world,” Clayton said. “Jarrad Davis, you see how much the game actually means to him. So when I got hurt, I felt that pain. Even though I didn’t play a lot, I was still mad.”
When Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph first watched Clayton practice in fall camp, he thought his 5-star recruit was a bust.
“I said, ‘Man, Rumph, you sure missed out on that one.’ He was bad. I mean he was bad, bad, bad, bad,” Rumph said in October. “But then all of a sudden you just saw him, he wants it so bad. He’s just so eager, and he’s just great to be around. He’s just like right there on your hip. I mean, you’re talking to somebody else and you turn around and he’s right there trying to absorb everything.”
Clayton developed a close relationship with Rumph during his recruitment. Coaches from around the country pursued Clayton until the end of his process, but he wanted to play for Rumph.
“He’s taught me a lot of things,” Clayton said. “Taught me how to be a man, taught me how to grow up, taught me how to manage things. It’s not just about football when you’re talking to that guy. He can have a long conversation with you about random stuff, but you’ll get something out of it.”
Clayton also credited his fellow defensive linemen for showing him the ropes as a freshman. Humbled, healthier and hopefully heavier in 2017, Clayton thinks he’ll be ready for a bigger role next year.
“Learning from guys like Caleb Brantley, Bryan Cox, Keivonnis Davis and CeCe Jefferson, they helped me,” Clayton said. “I learned a lot from them, just by watching and seeing how they do things. Now that we have guys leaving, it’s time for me to step up. They’re handing down the torch.”