MARK CLAYTON is such an imposing figure on the field that it's hard to believe he arrived at Oklahoma in 2000 as a wispy 150-pounder. On his first day in the weight room, the Sooners wideout tore a pectoral muscle trying to bench-press a little more than 100 pounds. "He about broke his breastplate in two," says Oklahoma co--defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who discovered Clayton while scouting a teammate of his at Sam Houston High in Arlington, Texas. "We knew right then he was going to have to redshirt."
Clayton, who did indeed sit out the Sooners' national title season of 2000, laughs at the memory. "I'd never lifted weights," he says. "I had to get big, so the coaches told me to eat until I got sick, and then to keep eating. I gained 20 pounds my freshman year."
While two teammates, quarterback Jason White and running back Adrian Peterson, made their respective cases for the Heisman Trophy last Saturday, no Sooner made more of an impact than Clayton, a 2003 All-America who's now a chiseled 5'11" and 187 pounds. In the 42--3 drubbing of Colorado in the Big 12 championship game, he caught a game-high eight passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns, the second coming on a nifty over-the-shoulder grab in the corner of the end zone. That score put the Sooners up 21--0 early in the second quarter and effectively put to rest the ghost of last year's Big 12 title matchup, when the Sooners saw their undefeated season slip through their hands.
Perhaps the most underrated receiver in the country, Clayton has been White's favorite target for the last two years, catching 145 passes for 2,280 yards and 23 touchdowns. He holds seven Oklahoma receiving records, including career and season receiving yards. "He's a legitimate 4.4 guy, but more than his 40-yard-dash speed, he's superquick side to side," says Oklahoma receivers coach Darrell Wyatt. "He's very elusive, and what's special about Mark is his ability to make plays after a catch."
Clayton's numbers (62 catches, 855 yards, eight TDs) were down this season because of Peterson's emergence and the development of other targets, including junior Travis Wilson (42 receptions, nine TDs) and senior Mark Bradley (21 catches, seven TDs). "We've got quality, experienced receivers, and we spread the ball around," says Wyatt. "That's what makes it difficult to game-plan against us."
Clayton was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award in '03 but not this year. That's fine with him--like the rest of the Sooners, he has another goal in mind. He remembers how much it hurt to lose both the conference and national championships a year ago. "I knew our running game had to pick up this year," he says. "If that means receiving production has been down, I'm not at all sad about that. Coming back for my senior season, I wanted to win championships, no matter how we had to do it." --Mark Beech