USM’s Rod Crayton fights through 315-pound Kentucky guard George Asafo-Adjei (64) to snare a Wildcat running back Sihiem King (22).

Look at the photo above. That massive right arm belongs to Southern Miss defensive tackle Rod Crayton, who has just fought through 6-foot, 5-inch, 315-pound Kentucky guard George Asafo-Adjei, wearing jersey number 64. Crayton reaches over and around Asafo-Adjei to latch onto Wildcat running back Sihiem King. Look at the size of that arm. Trust me, King is going nowhere.

Rick Cleveland

Plays like this are considered a bonus when defensive linemen make them themselves. Normally, the D-lineman’s job is to occupy offensive linemen so they won’t block a linebacker and the linebacker will make the tackle. The really great defensive linemen sometimes will occupy two offensive linemen and Crayton sometimes does.

That’s what makes competent defensive linemen such a valued commodity in college football. They must possess the size and muscle to contend with massive men, who are allowed to grab them, as the Kentucky lineman is doing in this photo. They must have the quickness to sometimes go around them, the strength to break away from them — or, in this case, go over them. Simply put, not many people on the planet fit the job description.

Now then, you need to know this about USM’s Crayton: He does his job essentially with the full use of one foot. That’s right: Crayton, a 6-1, 290-pound senior from Dadeville, Ala., wears a prosthetic boot on his right leg, something he has done since he was eight years old and lost more than half his right foot in a lawn mower accident.

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Crayton was always big and strong for his age, even as a third grader at the time of the accident. He loved to play football and it came naturally to him because he could use his size and natural strength to his advantage.

After the accident, the surgeon told the young boy that he’d probably never play football again.

Crayton laughs. “I was trying to play before I got off crutches,” he says. “I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.”

Rod Crayton, USM defensive lineman

He kept growing. The prosthetics – and he can’t even imagine how many he has been through – improved. He started on his high school team as a ninth grader. By the time he was a senior he was the Alabama Class 4A lineman of the year. He set a school record for tackles and sacks. He played so well that nobody knew – unless they knew him well – he was playing on one foot.

The colleges started calling: Ole Miss, Mississippi State, LSU, Washington State, Vanderbilt, Southern Miss, Troy, UAB and more. And Crayton listened. He had a cousin who had played at Auburn.

“I always wanted to play college football,” he says. “It was a goal of mine from when I was a little boy.”

As the recruiting process continued, most of the colleges went another direction.

“There were some coaching changes going on and most of them said that’s what happened,” Crayton says. “Seems like every school recruiting me had a coaching change, either the head coach or the D-line coach.”

We’ll never know how many of those schools backed off because of Crayton’s right foot. Southern Miss and then-USM assistant coach John Wozniak (now at Oklahoma State) kept on recruiting Crayton, which was fine with him. “I just felt comfortable here with the coaches and the players,” he says. “This is where I wanted to be.”

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This past season has been by far Crayton’s best. He will tell you that. So will USM head coach Jay Hopson, who says, “It is amazing what Rod has done with his body. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a player in all my years in coaching.”

Crayton has remarkable natural ability, despite his right foot. He possesses much natural strength and quickness but always has struggled with his weight.

When USM completed the 2016 season in the New Orleans Bowl, Crayton tipped the scales at 325 pounds, which included far too much bad weight. This story isn’t about how Crayton had a heart-to-heart with a coach or a family member — or anything like that.

No, he simply decided, on his own, “I can be better than this.”

“I knew I had one year of football left and I wanted it to be as good as it could possibly be,” Crayton says.

He went at USM’s winter strength and conditioning program with a new-found passion. He didn’t just do the early morning running and sprint drills. He would get on the treadmill on his own for 30 to 45 minutes — and then go do the gassers with his teammates.

He re-doubled his efforts in the weight room, where he had always excelled. He dropped from 325 to 278, while adding strength, speed and quickness.

“Every time I went to have the body weight assessment, I had lost fat and gained muscle,” Crayton says. “I could feel the change.”

It has translated to the field. He leads USM interior defensive linemen in tackles for loss with six and a half. He is second in total tackles with 32 and he has forced one fumble.

Says Hopson, “Rod does a whole lot more than occupy blockers. He makes plays.”

Last week, Crayton walked across the stage to receive is USM diploma, a goal of his that he admits often seemed distant over the past four years. A year ago, at the same time he re-dedicated himself to football, he says he did the same in the classroom.

And now, he hopes maybe this won’t be his last year of football.

Clayton’s workouts won’t stop after Southern Miss plays Florida State in next week’s Independence Bowl.

“I’ll be back here for Pro Day next spring,” he said, grinning. “I am going to play this game until they tell me I can’t.”

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 12 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.