After the academic clearinghouse delayed his enrollment until the final week of training camp last year, Najee Clayton came to Rutgers behind the game.
Now, he feels ahead of the curve.
To start his transition from defensive back to the SAM, Clayton bulked up 20 pounds this year.
“It was an easy transition after I put on the weight that I put on,” said Clayton, who weighs 227 pounds to start camp. “Everything is fun, I love to be out there with the guys competing and it’s a big difference because (at linebacker) you’re more involved with the linemen, things like that. But that’s why you work hard in the summer, do what you got to do so you put on that weight. And now, it’s just go time.”
Clayton attributed the spike in his physical growth to the summer strength program under coach Kenny Parker.
“I love this guy,” Clayton said of Parker. “They come in with energy every morning, get us going. At times, we all have our problems at home. But we step into this weight room and you just break that out. I just love our strength staff and everything that they do.”
Head coach Chris Ash spearheaded the position change. Clayton’s willingness to embrace the move sped up the process, he said.
At the start of camp, the Paramus (N.J.) Catholic product is right where Ash envisioned him — physically and technically.
“He’s looking great,” Ash said. “He’s put on a lot of weight and just trying to play himself into shape right now. … He looks like a linebacker now, which I like. He’s got to continue to play himself into shape and play like one. But I like what he’s doing out there right now. He’s physical, he reacts pretty quickly to things that he sees, he’s making plays in the run game, in the pass game and I think he’s got a great upside and great potential.”
Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann, the first-year defensive coordinator echoed Ash’s observations of Clayton. Niemann noted that despite the steep increase in weight, Clayton managed to maintain his athleticism.
“Najee’s made a lot of strides like the other two,” Niemann said, referring to Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts. “(Clayton) put on a substantial amount of weight and looks at this point that he’s been able to maintain some of his movement skills. His speed and quickness skills are, I think, very similar to where they were before the weight gain, so that’s a real positive and we’ll see if he can hold onto that and maintain that throughout the course of camp.”
Clayton said he embraced Niemann, who oversees the linebackers on top of his defensive coordinator duties, from day one.
“Coach Niemann, I love that guy — and he’s very tough on everyone,” Clayton said. “He set that standard that we’re going to have to meet. And like I said, it’s going to be fun. We’re all working hard at it everyday, so it’s just a battle out there everyday. We’re competing.”
Clayton made it a point to take his development at linebacker to the next level in the film room.
Every night before bed, Clayton said he watches tape of himself and current New York Jets linebacker Darron Lee, who excelled at the SAM under Ash at Ohio State. Lee remains close with Ash, and visited with him during the Fairleigh Dickinson high-school camp.
With that mindset and the self-admitted similarities he sees when he analyzes the former Ash pupil, Clayton hopes to soon mirror that effect on the field.
“I just learn his techniques and everything, how he basically did everything,” Clayton said of Lee. “So how he moved, how he took on blocks, so he’s a big help. Basically how he tipped things off because I feel like me and him are similar in speed. So, yeah, it’s going to be fun, you guys are going to see real soon.”