IT HAPPENED IN A BLUR. ON A SOGGY NIGHT LAST SEPTEMBER IN HAPPY VALLEY, Iowa trailed fifth-ranked Penn State 10-5 early in the fourth quarter when Adrian Clayborn, the Hawkeyes' 6' 4", 285-pound defensive end, burst through the line, blocked Penn State punter Jeremy Boone's kick, scooped up the ball and rumbled 53 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. The much-needed spark sent Iowa on its way to a 21-10 upset and, eventually, an 11-2 season. "I still don't remember picking up the ball and running," says Clayborn, who was visibly exhausted by the time he reached the end zone. "I just remember seeing a bunch of fans in white sitting down." Clayborn attributes what proved to be one of the most exciting plays of Iowa's 2009 season to "just doing something routine. I outweighed [my blocker] by like 80 pounds."
A fifth-year senior from St. Louis, Clayborn has long used his size to get where he wants to go. He arrived in Iowa a 250-pound linebacker who'd rarely lifted weights. Also, Clayborn was born with Erb's Palsy, a nerve disorder that caused extreme weakness in his right shoulder. He required physical therapy his entire youth to gain strength in that shoulder. Even when he began playing football in junior high he couldn't fully extend his arm, but that didn't stop him from dominating opponents. At Iowa, Clayborn's first order of business was to bulk up, and he began weightlifting while undergoing extensive physical therapy with the guidance of the training staff.
Today he feels almost no effects from the Erb's Palsy, and he has added a whole lot more to his arsenal than straight-up size. Last season he emerged as one of the nation's strongest, fastest and most disruptive defensive ends, finishing the year with 11½ sacks, 20 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. He seemed to save his best performances for Iowa's biggest games, starting with that springboard win at Penn State. He had two sacks and a forced fumble in a last-second win at Michigan State. He had a career-high 12 tackles at Ohio State. Finally, in the Hawkeyes' 24-14 Orange Bowl win over Georgia Tech, Clayborn produced nine solo tackles, two sacks and helped to hold the Yellow Jackets' triple-option offense to 155 total yards, earning MVP honors. "It's pretty rare that the MVP of a BCS bowl game is a defensive lineman," says coach Kirk Ferentz. "He made some huge plays for us last year."
Many observers were surprised that Clayborn barely flirted with leaving early for the NFL, announcing his decision to return in mid-December and sticking with it even after his bowl-game showcase. "I don't think there's any question he would have been a first-round pick," says Ferentz. That was news to Clayborn, who said he didn't even realize he was on NFL teams' radars until after the regular season. "College goes by way too fast," he says. "I wanted to finish what I started, get my degree, have my Senior Day and all that." With all four starters returning on the defensive line, Clayborn knows he'll be counted on as one of the leaders of a team looking to get over the hump and win the Big Ten title it narrowly missed last season. "We know we have a target on our backs now," he says. "Teams are going to come out even harder to try to beat us this year." Clayborn, for his part, will come out even bigger, faster and stronger.