Thick-Skinned Tiger

When Michael Clayton was catching passes at LSU between 2000 and 2003, he truly was a go-to receiver for the Tigers.

Clayton left Baton Rouge as the school's all-time leader in touchdown catches, second in receptions and fourth in career receiving yards. His solid play helped the Bayou Bengals win the SEC title in 2001 and 2003 and the co-national championship when he was a senior in 2003, when Clayton was a first-team All-SEC wideout.

In 2004, Clayton's good deeds at LSU didn't go unrewarded as he was a first-round pick of Tampa Bay. In his rookie season with the Bucs, he caught 60 balls for nearly 1,200 yards and seven scores, the fifth best performance in league history by a rookie pass catcher. Since then, his numbers have declined due to injury but Clayton now looks ready to ascend once again and reclaim his place as one of the game's top young receivers, a spot he held prior to being injured. Tiger Rag recently caught up with Clayton from Tampa Bay by phone and here's what he had to say about life in the NFL, LSU football and life in general.

Sure, it has been almost five years since Clayton last took the field for the Tiger football team, but that doesn't mean his love for LSU has ebbed in the least.

"It was great for me," he said. "When I had (Nick) Saban coming to the house, he said to make a 40-year decision not a four-year decision because at the time, a lot of top Louisiana natives were leaving the state. So, I decided to come be part of LSU and help get the program right. From the moment I got there, I knew what my future held because Coach Saban was totally honest with me. I knew exactly what I was getting into because he told it like it was. I enjoyed every minute of it. There was nothing like playing in Tiger Stadium. The fans, the atmosphere and everything about it was amazing. From my freshman year, I played and that was a great feeling."

Being a great professional is all about mentality and Clayton gives former LSU head coach Nick Saban credit for helping him develop that winning attitude.

"He gave me the mindset that I have," he said. "He gave me the opportunity to play defense and special teams. He taught me how to play hard for 60 minutes and how to play one game at a time. The relationship that I had with him, being able to go into his office and talk to him at any time, was special for me. It really helped me respect him and coaches that I had in the future."

With LSU winning the co-national championship in 2003, Clayton got to complete his eligibility on a high note as the Tigers won the Sugar Bowl.

"It was a long road," he said. "We got off to a hot start but lost to Florida. The motto for the whole season was to play hard for 60 minutes and to take it one game at a time. We would all come in and check the board after the game. If you gave your heart, then you would sign that board and if you didn't, you didn't sign it. We just kept pounding the rock and at the end of the season, got a chance to play in the SEC Championship Game. We didn't know that we would be invited and had a great game that night against Georgia. Then, we got invited to play in the Sugar Bowl at the Superdome, which was like a home game for us. We took advantage of it, it was a packed house that night and was a great night for LSU fans and the state of Louisiana."

As an NFL first-round pick, the expectations surrounding Clayton were high before he ever took the field as a professional. But to his credit, he responded with a 60 catch, 1,193-yard and seven-touchdown season to start his pro career off with a bang. Michael definitely made his transition from the SEC to the NFC look easy but admits that he still had to make some adjustments to the higher level of competition in the NFL.

"The biggest adjustment has been learning how to take care of your body," Clayton said. "When I came out for my rookie year, I had a great year and was a little banged up. I never really got back to normal until this offseason. It's something that you have to stay on and have to get the massages and go see specialists. You can't just wake up and go play football like you did in college because it's a different level. I had to learn that and think that was the biggest adjustment. As far as being an athlete and the game of football, the transition was really easy because I got thrown into the fire early and had to come around. It's all about opportunity and if you get one early, make the best of it for later on in your career."

After amassing nearly 1,200 yards receiving as a rookie, Clayton had just 32 catches for 372 yards in 2005 and last year, caught only 33 balls for 356 yards, a career-low. His dropoff in production have many in the media wondering what happened between that rookie year and now? He doesn't give much thought to such criticism as Clayton instead stays the course and knows his production will continue to rise.

"I keep it moving," Clayton said. "I know exactly where I stand in the NFL. Guys are going to have years that are less productive than others and I understand that. I've been banged up but the Bucs know where I stand and I know where I stand with them. I think every team in the NFL knows guys who can play the game of football. They're going to talk about guys if they drop passes or make mistakes but that's the reality of the game. They have to have something to talk about. You have to keep a positive mental disposition and stay focused on going out and playing your game the way you know how to play it. I just take it one day at a time and take advantage of the opportunities given to me and am grateful for those."

Like all who have played for the Purple and Yellow, Clayton takes a great deal of pride in his LSU lineage. But he also likes the fact that he is part of an ever-growing group of ex-Tigers now plying their trade on Sundays in the NFL.

"We have a lot of guys out there like Josh Reed in Buffalo," he said. "It feels good to see guys from where you come from and see where they're at. It's good to keep tabs on these guts. We all still talk to each other. It's good to see them all doing well because we all know what it takes to be successful in the league. You're playing for your family and representing LSU. That's really special and it's good to see a lot of guys out there doing that."

In the almost five seasons since he left LSU, Michael Clayton has gone from one of the NFL's best rookie receivers ever to an afterthought in Tampa Bay. This Baton Rouge native hasn't let criticism deter him in the least bit and after being plagued by injuries the last few seasons, when his production dropped to career-low levels as a professional, he is now healthy and ready to return to the high level he played at as a rookie in 2004. Clayton is still only 25 and clearly has many great years ahead of him as a professional wideout. He was a star during his four years at LSU and early on with the Bucs, so why can't he reach that lofty status once again?

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