By James LoPresti, correspondent
TAMPA, FLA — Aggressive, physical, powerful, barbaric, relentless.
These are just some of the words used to describe Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn’s on-field demeanor. But Clayborn says people are forgetting one important word — heart.
“As a player, I just like to play with emotion and intensity and let the rest fall into place,” he said. “If I am getting the opportunity to go out on the field, I at least want to put my heart into it and do my best.”
Clayborn’s hard work is paying off. Heading into the final game of the season, the former Iowa standout leads the team with 7.5 sacks, 30 quarterback pressures and three forced fumbles. The sacks are third among all rookies, trailing only San Francisco’s Aldon Smith (a former Cedar Rapids Washington prep) and Denver’s Von Miller.
Clayborn’s strong work ethic and his eagerness to learn from others has been a catalyst for his early success.
“The part of my game that has improved the most since college is definitely becoming more knowledgeable as a football player,” Clayborn said. “You can always gain knowledge every game you play if you approach it the right way. I have really worked on my pass-rush and run-game drills this year.”
Bucs defensive line coach Keith Millard said Clayborn has been playing great the last few weeks.
“He’s played against some pretty good tackles here recently,” Millard said, “and still he’s done a pretty good job.”
But Clayborn isn’t satisfied with his stats.
“My goal I set at the beginning of the season was double-digit sacks,” he said. “People thought I was crazy, but I really feel like I can get to it. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but I really feel like I can do it.”
Fans shouldn’t put it past him. Clayborn has been proving skeptics wrong all his life.
The two-time team captain at Iowa recorded 192 tackles, 19 sacks, 37.5 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles as a Hawkeye. However, as the 2011 draft approached, questions popped up about Erb’s palsy, a condition Clayborn was born with that limits the strength and mobility of his right arm, and whether it would limit his effectiveness against NFL talent every week.
Clayborn wasn’t fazed by those rumblings.
“It’s (the NFL) a bigger stage, with bigger and faster athletes,” he said. “It made me step up my game even more.”
When the Bucs selected Clayborn 20th overall in April’s draft, he became the first defensive end in Iowa football history to go in the first round.
Clayborn has made the most of his new home in Tampa. He frequently eats at Lee Roy Selmon’s restaurant, a haven for barbecue-lovers. Clayborn said Selmon’s has a little Southern spill to it, whereas his favorite Iowa restaurants focused on country-style food.
But, according to Clayborn, nothing compares to good home-cooking.
“My mom’s cooking is always the best,” Clayborn said. “There is no comparison.”
Clayborn is very active on social media, primarily Twitter (@AjaClay). He said he doesn’t tweet as much during the regular season, but said five-to-10 posts a day is normal. Discussions have been posted about everything from food, weather and Christmas plans, to Iowa football games and Tim Tebow. Yes, Tim Tebow.
“I am happy for him,” Clayborn said. “A lot of people criticized him, so it is good to have someone do well when they are criticized that much. It is good for him to be able to stand up to adversity.”
When he is not chowing down on some of his favorite meals or posting funny jokes and pictures on Twitter, Clayborn is busy lifting in the weight room or training on the practice field. He has a passion for the game and a strong will to succeed despite what has been a rough season for Tampa Bay (4-11), which has lost nine consecutive games. This attitude is getting the attention of rookies and veterans alike.
Bucs second-year defensive lineman Gerald McCoy called him a monster. Once he saw Clayborn perform in practice, he saw his potential and knew the Bucs got a star in the draft.
“I want to be a leader on this team,” Clayborn said. “Everybody helps one another to get better. This team is like a big family.”
“You really couldn’t ask for a better rookie or a better player than Adrian,” he said. “He’s passionate, he loves the game, he wants to be good and he’s doing everything he can to be that.”
Nevertheless, Clayborn realizes there are some aspects of his game that he needs to develop more heading into next season.“I need to become more comfortable with the game,” he said. “Being able to react faster and play faster. Not think so much. I just want to improve it faster, so I can get better. My coaches say that comes with age.”