ATLANTA — It was the sudden, chill-causing shot heard ‘round Georgia Tech’s icy Midtown campus.
And it may not be the last.
In a bit of a surprise move, Yellow Jackets offensive tackle Nick Claytor shook up his now former college program’s offensive landscape late Wednesday afternoon by unexpectedly declaring his intentions to join the NFL draft process — a year early.
“I’ve got a good shot is what I’ve been told, and I’m going to take it,” Claytor said Thursday afternoon, speaking to a small huddle of reporters at Georgia Tech.
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Nearly 12 months to the day that four other Yellow Jackets announced their decisions to leave Georgia Tech ahead of their senior seasons, Claytor believed it was time to defect, too.
He may not be the only one who feels that way, either.
Several other junior Yellow Jackets have submitted letters to the NFL to explore their options of leaving for the professional ranks. Like Claytor, they all have by now received paperwork outlining where they likely will be taken in April’s draft if they chose to come out of school.
Nationwide, all non-seniors have until Saturday to announce whether they are staying in college or heading to the NFL.
As for Claytor, the decision was one that was made wholly and fully in the weeks since Georgia Tech’s Dec. 27 Independence Bowl loss to Air Force. Not once during the season did he consider the draft, he said.
“It was never a thing where I thought I was going to the league all season. That wasn’t the thought process at all,” said Claytor, who has learned he is a fifth- to seventh-round projection. “It was after the season. I sat down, did some research and then made the decision. It was never during the season that I thought I was getting out of here.”
Some may argue, however, that the seeds of the idea of leaving Georgia Tech early may have been planted some three years ago. That offseason, the Yellow Jackets experienced a transition between previous head coach Chan Gailey’s more balanced run/pass pro-style system to current head coach Paul Johnson’s run-based spread option. Gailey, and a couple of former Georgia Tech assistants, now coaches the Buffalo Bills. Offensive guard Cord Howard, a Phenix City, Ala. native, was taken by the Bills late in last year’s draft.
Caught in the middle of the changes at Georgia Tech in 2008 were offensive linemen like Claytor, who had to completely reinvent their bodies, change their blocking techniques and totally alter their playing styles to fit the scheme.
It all led to thoughts of transfer fluttering inside the then-freshman’s head.
“It was the triple-option, I didn’t really know much about it,” Claytor said, “but once I got in the room with my roommates at the time — Derrick Morgan (former defensive end who now plays for the Tennessee Titans), (and current players) Tyler Melton and Roddy Jones — it’s just like, these are my best friends and I love this education I’m getting.
“I signed on to Georgia Tech. I didn’t sign on to an offense. I think it shows what kind of player I am. I was willing to stay, I was willing to sacrifice and I was willing to work harder than I ever have in my life.”
At 6-foot-7, 292 pounds, the big lineman’s frame fits the prototype of what NFL teams will be looking for when trying to protect their quarterbacks. A concern most teams may have about him, however, is the fact that he has spent very little time being exposed to their styles of blocking. Not to mention, in this rare offensive system, the redshirt junior started just 15 of the 35 career games in which he played. And, despite his nine starts this past season, much of his playing time was shared with sophomore Phil Smith.
None of those reservations concern Claytor.
He said has already been changing his blocking mindset from the leg-diving, low, cutting action of Johnson’s option to the more upright, backpeddling, engaging style of more traditional NFL offensive systems.
Both techniques should help his expanded repertoire, he said.
“As a large lineman, you get used to getting big, you get used to dominating with your size and I cut that part of my skill set out,” Claytor said. “My skill set was pass-blocking and being bigger than people, so I cut out that and I had to learn how to run-block.
“Ultimately, getting quicker, getting faster and at the same time learning how to run-block has helped me. (Co-offensive line coaches) Coach (Todd) Spencer and Coach (Mike) Sewak have helped me every day in working on my pad level getting lower, and having more explosion at the point of attack.”
What’s more? The coaches taught him how to block with “heart,” he said.
“That’s what our offense is about. You’ve got to have heart to move that ball,” Claytor said.
The Yellow Jackets led the nation in rushing this season, averaging nearly 330 yards per game.
Claytor has yet to sign an agent, but expects to do so soon. Of those he has talked to with regards to the agent selection process include Morgan — one of the four players who left early last season — and former Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran. Claytor, Curran and Morgan were all part of the same recruiting class.
In terms of his Georgia Tech education, the Management major remains just 10 credit hours short of graduating. As part of his deal with mom Lisa Claytor to enter the draft process, Nick Claytor said he agreed to finish his requirements in the coming months.
“I can’t make it home without getting my degree,” he joked.
Claytor’s plans are to finish his degree in the fall or next spring. This spring, he wants to be fully dedicated to preparing for the NFL Combine and for a potential draft selection.