Sept. 26, 2008
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IOWA CITY, Iowa — For most of his adolescent life, Adrian Clayborn was told he couldn’t play football. He had the size, speed, quickness and stamina, but what he lacked was his mother’s blessing.
Clayborn was born with nerve damage in his right shoulder and his mother, Tracie, didn’t want to risk further damage while toiling on the gridiron. The continuous pleading by Clayborn eventually paid off in eighth grade when his mother lifted the no-contact ban.
“Once I finally had a chance to play, I took off with it,” said Clayborn, now the starting right defensive end for the University of Iowa. “My mom was scared with me playing, but once I got on the field, they couldn’t get me off.”
That’s bad news for Hawkeye opponents. After four games — three of them UI victories — Clayborn, a sophomore, has emerged as a rising star on one of the most powerful defenses in the land. Iowa is fifth in scoring defense (7.3 points per game), 18th in pass defense (156.5 yards per game), 19th in total defense (255.5 yards per game) and 30th in rushing defense (99.0 yards per game). Clayborn is second on the team with 23 tackles (Jeremiha Hunter has 24), including 2 ½ for a loss and one quarterback sack. He has six solo stops and 17 assists.
“It’s easier mentally because now I can just play out there instead of thinking about what I have to do,” Clayborn said. “Now I react instead of being back on my heels. Last year was learning the system and getting the speed of the game down.”
Clayborn redshirted in 2006 and as a freshman in 2007 recorded 20 tackles (2 ½ for a loss) with two sacks, a forced fumble, blocked kick and pass breakup. The more experience he gains, the more comfortable he becomes.
As a senior at Webster Groves (Mo.) High School, Clayborn was named Missouri Player of the Year. He also played tight end, where he caught 42 passes for 10 touchdowns, and as a member of the basketball team, he played power forward. Now 6-foot-3, 283 pounds, Clayborn’s days on the hardwood have definitely passed. He also quickly dismisses the notion of crossing over to be part of UI offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe’s jumbo package.
“I think my offensive days are over,” he said. “I want to deliver the blows now instead of take them.”
On a defensive line oozing star power with the likes of senior tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul, it has been Clayborn in the No. 94 jersey who is rapidly becoming a fan favorite as he stalks opposing ball carriers and flushes quarterbacks out of the pocket.
“I’ve heard around campus that people are keeping their eyes on me. But I think they should keep their eyes on the whole defense and the whole team because we’re moving forward this year.”
UI defensive end
“I’ve heard around campus that people are keeping their eyes on me,” Clayborn said. “But I think they should keep their eyes on the whole defense and the whole team because we’re moving forward this year.”
Hawkeye fans aren’t the only ones keeping a close watch on Clayborn’s every move. So are opposing quarterbacks — especially when a pass play is called.
“The quarterback has a big target on his back and I’m looking to put my helmet right there,” Clayborn said. “Once you get that sack it’s a sigh of relief that you finally got to him and got him on the ground. I like being physical on every play and I’m trying to provide a spark that’s going to change the game.”
Clayborn was recruited heavily out of high school with the most interest coming from Missouri, Nebraska, Texas Tech and Iowa.
“I wanted to get away from home,” he said. “Missouri is only 1 ½ hours away, and when I visited Iowa, it was crazy and something different. It was more of a family atmosphere.”
Following Iowa’s 42-0 victory against Florida International on Sept. 6 — a game where the Hawkeyes had six quarterback sacks — UI head coach Kirk Ferentz praised Clayborn’s six-tackle, one-sack effort.
“I wanted to single out Adrian Clayborn,” Ferentz said. “It’s not a surprise because he came on at the end of last year, really looked good in the spring and practiced well in August. He’s playing like a veteran at practice, he’s a good team leader and carries himself well, so that’s really fun to watch that and watch him grow and develop into a guy that’s got a real stature out there.”
When the game is in progress, Clayborn says he frequently engages in conversations with the linemen across the way. Quarterbacks, on the other hand, receive the silent treatment.
“I have many conversations with the tackles and the whole offensive line,” said Clayborn after flashing a wide smile. “I never talk to the quarterback. I just give him that look.”
The Hawkeye defense received its first serious test of the season Sept. 13 against Iowa State when the Cyclones controlled more than 11 minutes of the third quarter. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Clayborn turned to 70,585 friends for a boost.
“I was exhausted, but there is nothing like playing in Kinnick and seeing all those fans out there,” Clayborn said. “That gave me an extra push. I had my hands on my knees one play and I just looked up and realized where I was and I got a burst from somewhere.”
As much as Clayborn derives that little extra from the Kinnick Stadium crowd when the contest is in progress, he said many Hawkeye fans would be surprised to meet him when the helmet and pads are off.
“Everyone always sees the mean, game-face Adrian,” Clayborn said. “I’m really a funny guy.”
Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, opposing ball carriers still aren’t laughing.