The son of Auburn University assistant track and field coach Jerry Clayton, Zach has gained nearly 30 pounds since playing last season at Auburn High and is the definition of a late bloomer in the recruiting game.
At 6-3 and 250 pounds, Clayton is an outstanding athlete who ran a 40-yard dash time of 4.8 seconds at Auburn's summer camp and added a vertical leap of 33 inches. Throw in a shuttle time of 4.51 seconds, which was the third-best time posted by a defensive lineman in the camp, and you have several reasons why Clayton could be a high riser in recruiting circles from now until signing day in February.
A starter since the 10th grade at defensive end, Clayton played football at Auburn High before transferring to Opelika High for his final season of football. An increased emphasis in weight lifting for coach Spence McCracken has meant a different feeling for Clayton as a senior for the Bulldogs.
Now a fierce pass rusher with the quickness to pressure off the corner, Clayton says his season is going great to this point for the undefeated Opelika squad and he's looking to make a name for himself after flying under the radar for the majority of his career.
"It's going real well," Clayton tells Inside The Auburn Tigers. "I have learned a whole lot technique-wise. It has improved my game tremendously. It's light night and day. I believe I'm a much better football player. At Auburn nobody had probably even heard of me. When I moved here I started getting a little bit more (attention)."
Clayton comes off the corner with a purpose as he pressures the Northview High quarterback last Friday.
So far this season Opelika has cruised to victories in each of its first four games behind the strong play of an offense led by Troy State QB commitment Jonathan Chandler and the play of junior running back Joseph Wilson and junior receiver Marquez Strickland. That has left Clayton on the sidelines for much of the second half of games. Still he has managed four sacks and 12 passes broken up. Friday night he had one sack in a win over Northview and four passes broken up at the line of scrimmage.
"I definitely have a knack for doing that," Clayton says of batting down attempted passes. "I don't know why. I guess it's because I'm tall, but it's the first year I have actually done that."
With his father an accomplished coach in the field events on the collegiate level with a stint at Florida before moving to Auburn, it's no surprise that Clayton is a very good thrower in the spring as well. In fact, he's the state record holder in the discus for Alabama with a throw of 189 feet and nine inches. He had a throw of 196 feet and seven inches earlier in the year, which was the ninth-best throw in the country by a high school athlete. He also throws the shot put as well with a best throw of 58 feet, one inch last season.
Because of his history in field events, Clayton shows explosion and also great balance as a football player. He has the ability to change direction like a much smaller player and he credits his work on the track to his becoming a better football player.
"I think it helps me," Clayton says. "Most of the things I do in track, even during the offseason, carries over to football. It's all about balance and knowing where your body is."
With his continuing development on the football field Clayton's schools of interest will continue to grow. Right now he says that Auburn, UAB, Oregon and Georgia Tech are the colleges that are interested in him for football with North Carolina and TCU also interested in him for track. He says that he feels like his list of schools is smaller because of his father's job at Auburn.
"Most of the track people have heard that I would like to go football," Clayton says. "And they know my dad is the coach so they just figure I'm going to Auburn. Doing both isn't really that much of the concern to me. I would rather do football than anything else."
If Clayton has his way that will be the way things wind up. Saying that the Tigers are his leader at the moment, he notes that he would like to check out some other teams later in the season, but right now Auburn is the team for him.
"Auburn is definitely a team I'm interested in," Clayton says. "I like their campus a lot out of all the campuses I've been to they're probably my favorite."
Clayton and the Bulldogs take on Robert E. Lee High from Montgomery this Friday night in Opelika.