Roy Cummings, Tampa Tribune, Fla.
TAMPA — Buccaneers rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn welcomed his mother’s decision to move with him to Tampa Bay. At the same time, he applauded her decision to situate herself an arm’s length away in rural Land O’ Lakes.
Any closer and Clayborn fears he would have been lured back too often into his mother’s arms by the gravitational pull of her cooking, which Clayborn considers dangerously exceptional.
“Her shrimp-and-chicken Alfredo is the best,” Clayborn said. “But I can’t do too much of it. I used to, and that’s why I was fat in college, fat in high school and fat in middle school.”
Clayborn isn’t fat in the NFL. At 6-foot-3 and 287 pounds, he’s about 15 pounds leaner than when he came to the Bucs as a first-round draft pick in April. Not that it seems to matter.
Even when he was “fat” Clayborn played an aggressive style of ball that weighed heavily on the minds of opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks. That hasn’t changed.
Though the total is a relatively modest one by most standards, Clayborn’s 6.5 sacks through 13 games this season is tied for the most by a Buccaneer since defensive end Greg White led the team with eight in 2007.
Clayborn’s 6.5 sacks also are the most by an NFL rookie defensive lineman this season and third most by any rookie defender. They also are the most by a Bucs rookie since Santana Dotson had 10 in 1992.
Not even Lee Roy Selmon (five) had as many sacks as a rookie as Clayborn, whose team-leading 24 pressures suggests he has been on the verge of getting to the quarterback more often than the sacks indicate.
“A.C. has been playing great, especially the last few weeks,” Bucs defensive line coach Keith Millard said. “And he’s played against some pretty good tackles here recently, and still he’s done a pretty good job.
“And he hasn’t had a lot of help, either. We’ve had a lot of injuries lately, so he’s had to do a lot of things on his own. But when you watch the film you can see that from a pass rush standpoint, he’s just leaving guys.”
The Bucs hoped that would be the case. A team that has struggled to generate an impactful pass rush the past few years, Tampa Bay pegged Clayborn to change all of that.
Clayborn emerged as one of top collegiate pass rushers when he recorded 11.5 sacks as a junior at the University of Iowa. Even after his sack total dropped to 3.5 as a senior, he was considered an elite prospect.
Clayborn’s tenacity was the reason. He has what scouts like to call a “non-stop motor,” which is their way of saying he has as much energy as a Tesla coil and never quits on a play.
“He’s very active,” said Dallas coach Jason Garrett, who will get a good look at Clayborn tonight when the Bucs host the Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium. “The Bucs certainly picked up a good player there.”
Some may be a little surprised by that. Born with a nerve condition called Erb’s Palsy, Clayborn has always had to accommodate for a minor loss of mobility and strength in his right arm.
As his production suggests, though, the condition has never truly affected Clayborn, who quickly put to rest any concerns the Bucs might have had about the arm.
“He’s really been a standout guy for us,” coach Raheem Morris said. “He goes out there and plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played every single play, every single week.”
The benefits have the potential to reach far beyond the stat sheet. A former captain for the Hawkeyes, Clayborn is already setting an example for his teammates that his coaches consider exemplary.
“It’s the whole motor thing,” defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said. “It’s unbelievable and it’s great for that whole (defensive line) room to see how he works and runs around and how he’s constantly chasing the football and harassing the quarterback.
“It’s really nice to have a guy like that in that room for everybody else to follow.
Gerald (McCoy) did the same thing before he was hurt and now you have the same thing with Adrian, and with Brian Price, too, so you’re starting to see guys play football the Buc way – with relentless pursuit.”
Talk to Clayborn and it seems he’s in pursuit of perfection. It’s not enough, he says, just to be a good pass rusher. He also wants to be a superb run stopper and knows he’s nowhere near that goal.
“I’ve been doing some things well, but there’s still a lot I have to learn as far as focusing on my keys and stuff like that — things (fans) don’t see but coaches see,” he said.
“There’s still plays I make where I don’t know why I did that or how I did that, but it will all come. I do feel like I’ve been getting better each and every week.”
Millard agrees. He still detects mistakes in Clayborn’s game — a missed gap assignment here, a technique flaw on a block there — but seldom sees him make the same mistake twice.
“One of the things you really love about him is that he stands up to (the mistakes),” Millard said. “He’s an accountable guy, and that’s what you want in your key guys.
“You really couldn’t ask for a better rookie or a better player than Adrian. He’s passionate, he loves the game, he wants to be good and he’s doing everything he can to be that.”
Including watching what he eats.