Sam Hellman / Scout

Linebacker Najee Clayton Cleans Up Approach to New Position

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Najee Clayton took a backseat to Greg Jones through two games at outside linebacker but a strong week of practice could have the sophomore converted safety in position for a bigger role against New Mexico.

In the first week of Rutgers training camp, head coach Chris Ash singled out sophomore Najee Clayton as the most “game ready” linebacker in an inexperienced unit.

Converted from safety to strongside linebacker, Clayton packed on 20 pounds for the switch and progressed from the spring into August.

But in the first two games for the Scarlet Knights (1-1), Clayton took a backseat at the position when fifth-year senior walk-on Greg Jones started instead.

“Throughout a tough few weeks of training camp, a lot of things happened,” Clayton said. “I mean, a long story short, I wouldn’t even say it’s inconsistency. Just … things happen. I know my boy Greg — he’s going to do his thing and I’m right there to support him.”

Jones, who earned his first two career starts at Washington and against Howard, said he and Clayton feed off each other in practices and games.

“We know we have a job to do,” Jones said. “We don’t worry about who’s going to start. We don’t worry about reps or anything like that. We have a job to do. And when it’s his turn, he has to do his job. When it’s my turn, I have to do my job. And that’s really what we focus on.”

While Jones earned the start, Clayton saw time with the first-team defense at the SAM last Saturday against Howard. The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder recorded three stops and a pass break-up.

In the responsibilities that come with the run and pass defenses, Clayton said he now feels more comfortable on the strong side against both.

“I feel like I’m handling (the run and the pass at the SAM) really well,” he said. “It’s some little things that I have to work on that that can be a game changer. But at the same time, each week I’m getting better and better and just getting better from here.”

Clayton said the difference from training camp to week three is his improvement in attention to detail and his overall work ethic.

“Basically, it’s the extra film study and the consistency and things like that,” Clayton said. “It’s the things that truly matter that players nowadays take for granted. So basically, it’s the little things.”

Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann, who works directly with the linebacker unit, is well aware of that improvement.

“Najee’s working hard at it,” Niemann said. “He’s got some inconsistencies that he’s got to iron out. I think as he gains experience, hopefully that’ll come. Just our perimeter leverage Saturday (against Howard) as a defense wasn’t what I wanted it to be. Some of that has to do with the outside backer play, some of that has to do with safety and defensive end play.

“We have an area that’s inconsistent for us right now and when you come into a game against a team (like New Mexico on Saturday) that runs a triple option, you’re going to get tested on the perimeter like you’ve never been before. So it’s going to be critical that we’ve got someone who stays cleaned up and we’ll play better as a perimeter defense.”

Clayton embraces the constructive criticism from Niemann.

“(Niemann) definitely is great teacher, and we take everything he says and listen to him,” Clayton said. “He’s been here around the game for a long time, so he definitely knows what he’s talking about. He has a lot of experience, so he’s a great teacher.”

In an inexperienced linebacker group, Clayton isn’t the only one to get coached up.

Jones admitted that they could all be mistake-prone time to time, but that the demeanor has yet to waver.

“We’ve been doing pretty good,” Jones said of the linebackers. “I feel like we’ve been doing our job. I mean, we make a little bit of mistakes here and there. But it’s football. Mistakes are going to happen throughout the game. It’s the way you bounce back.

“So inexperience is one thing, but we’re not, I don’t feel, inexperienced as far as never giving up because we’ve been through that already. We’ve been through adversity in our lives and it doesn’t even really make a difference. It doesn’t change on the field. Once adversity hits, you got to fight back. And we’ve got a group of guys who will fight back.”

The friendly competition between Clayton and Jones continues into Saturday when Rutgers hosts New Mexico and its triple-option attack out of the pistol formation. Jones opened the week listed as the starter at the SAM.

Regardless of who plays first on Saturday, Clayton welcomes the push.

“He’s a workhorse and everything is a competition with (Jones),” Clayton said. “I love that. That’s the culture that we’re trying to build here and I’m just following in his footsteps.”

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