Brighter days within grasp

The Baltimore Sun

Asked whether his 2007 season was a disappointing one, Ravens wide receiver Mark Clayton responded bluntly: "Obviously ... you can put that all in caps."

What wasn't obvious was the reason for his struggles.

Throughout last season, Clayton kept quiet about a personal crisis, trying to cope privately with a divorce while his wife was pregnant with his son, Ayden.

Clayton, 26, has never used his ordeal as an excuse, but he does recognize its impact.

"Without a doubt, it was the toughest thing I've gone through," Clayton said after the Ravens began their second week of training camp. "Growing up is understanding life and knowing how to deal with it and take care of your business. There was a lot of growing up in that for me."

On the field, though, Clayton regressed.

Lacking the focus he had previously in his career, Clayton watched his receptions drop from 67 in 2006 to 48 last season. He went from having a breakthrough season to a breakdown one.

Now with a new season starting, Clayton's smile has returned this training camp, along with his perspective.

"From my standpoint, his focus and his enthusiasm has really shown up," receivers coach Jim Hostler said. "So I'm assuming he's in a better place. He's communicated to me that his personal life is in better shape. If your personal life is in order, working is a lot easier. But when it's not, it's hard."

The biggest adjustment is coming to terms with his new life. He is a single father who shares custody of a 6-month-old.

"We understood that we had to take care of our son and that he was comfortable no matter how we felt," Clayton said. "We had to put whatever we had between us aside to make sure he was straight. That made it easier."

Clayton, the Ravens' first-round pick in 2005, can only hope he can rebound as quickly in his career.

He didn't score a touchdown last season and averaged 2.9 yards after the catch. He had three or fewer catches in 11 of 16 games.

A series of injuries also contributed to his dramatic stumble.

There was the high ankle sprain against the New York Giants in the second preseason game. Then a painful bout of turf toe in the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. A few weeks later, he strained an Achilles tendon. In the final month of the season, he missed practices with the flu and a back injury.

From the start of this year's training camp, Clayton has seemed to recover physically and emotionally.

"As competitors, you always want to come back regardless of what you did last season, game or play, and show that one up," he said. "You always want to do better on the next one."

Clayton was supposed to battle Demetrius Williams for a starting wide receiver job. But Clayton has been running exclusively with the first team because Williams is on the physically-unable-to-perform list with an injury to his lower left leg.

One advantage Williams has over Clayton is his size. Still, size can be deceiving, Hostler said.

"I know this is a big man's game, but there is a difference," Hostler said. "It's a game where you have to play big. It's how you play and not so much your size."

At 5 feet 10, Clayton can play big. But he thinks his height is "an advantage" because he can create more separation from defenders than bigger receivers can.

"I feel like I'm quicker than the [defensive backs] and I come out of my breaks faster than them," Clayton said. "I can keep DBs guessing and thinking when I am going to go deep. I love catching and being strong, beating guys to the ball."

Being stronger is what Clayton hopes will help him bounce back from a disappointing season to a satisfying one.

"It develops mental toughness when you have to block something out that hurts and focus on something else that you need to," Clayton said. "It's challenging. I could have gone crazy. But I was able to make it through and be here today."

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