After a year away from home, a season of adjustments and some disappointment along the way, Ashaad Clayton has a familiar feeling this month as the Colorado Buffaloes go through preseason practices.
“It kind of feels like high school to me,” the freshman running back said.
Of course, playing at CU is a much different level of football than Clayton played at Warren Easton High School in New Orleans. But, at Warren Easton, he was a star, rushing for 2,264 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior and leading the Eagles to the state championship game.
As a freshman with the Buffs last year, he was homesick and barely touched the ball. Now, Clayton, who was a four-star recruit in the 2020 class, finally has the confidence back that he carried in high school.
“I’m doing good,” he said. “My body is feeling good, I’m moving, playing faster. I’ve got the playbook down. Everything is just going smooth to me.”
During the 2020 season, CU ranked 23rd nationally in rushing, with 212.33 yards per game. It was the first time CU averaged at least 200 yards since 2002 (241.2), but it was really a one-man show at running back.
Jarek Broussard ranked third nationally with 149.2 yards per game, while the rest of the backs combined for 16.7 yards per game.
Clayton, despite his recruiting hype, had just seven carries for 31 yards and two touchdowns — both against Arizona.
He also admitted this spring that he was homesick last season, a feeling enhanced by the COVID-19 pandemic. That led to him opting out of CU’s trip to the Alamo Bowl to spend more time at home during the holidays.
Clayton returned to Boulder in January recharged and he now feels settled in at CU.
“I’m comfortable with the team, I’m around the team a lot, around the coaches a lot,” he said. “This is like my second home. Everything is just falling into place and going smooth.
“It’s so much better not worrying about being homesick all of the time. That played a big role and just had a lot of weight on my shoulders. It’s like a weight just lifted and I could just do what I’ve got to do to get to where I’ve got to get.”
With Broussard back and junior Alex Fontenot, the Buffs’ leading rusher in 2019, healthy after missing the 2020 season, the Buffs are loaded at running back. Clayton is making a push to get his share of the workload.
Offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini said getting Clayton going in the offense “is big,” and head coach Karl Dorrell said, “Ashaad Clayton is much better now than where he was last fall.”
The 6-foot, 200-pound Clayton feels that every day on the practice field and is eager to play a bigger role
“I feel like this year, honestly, is gonna be a breakout year for me,” he said. “Sitting this whole year, just sitting in the playbook, learning every day, watching film, just getting used to the speed of the game, it’s just high school again. Once I got the feeling that I’m gonna have a breakout year, I just leave it all to God.
“Now I could just go out there and do what I do with the fans, be hype and just play the game I love.”
One difference from high school is that Clayton does have much more competition for playing time, but he said he loves the battle, which also includes sophomores Deion Smith and Joe Davis and freshman Jayle Stacks.
“When I first committed, I looked at the depth chart and I’ve seen that they had some good backs,” Clayton said. “I feel like nobody should want to go anywhere that they’re the main back and every game getting 30-35 carries a game. By the time you get to the (NFL), your body’s already hurting. I prefer to have backs to rotate with, keep fresh legs, because the defense, every time a running back comes in with fresh legs, it’s hard to stop that.”
That approach, Clayton said, has kept the competition at running back intense, but healthy.
“We’re just getting each other better,” he said. “In the meeting room, film, practice, we’re just getting each other better. Everything will fall into place. We all want to touch the field, we’re all going to play, so we’re not really too worried about the depth chart right now.
“When I see them make a big play, that gets me happy. When they see me make a big play they’re happy. We’re competing, but at the end of the day, we just love each other.”