Tucker has raised hopes at Clayton

Clayton coach Marvin Tucker , overseeing practice Thursday, has changed the mind-set of what was a struggling football program. The Clippers are 3-0 for the first time since 1942. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Clayton coach Marvin Tucker , overseeing practice Thursday, has changed the mind-set of what was a struggling football program. The Clippers are 3-0 for the first time since 1942. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Posted: October 12, 2013

When Marvin Tucker became the football coach at Clayton before the 2011 season, he had a few ideas about offense and defense and special teams.

He liked this offensive approach and that defensive formation. He wanted his team to try this tactic and that technique, this X and that O.

But he quickly realized that coaching at a tiny Group 1 school with a long history of losing would have nothing to do with alignment and everything to do with attitude.

"One of my first thoughts was 'What have I gotten myself into?' " Tucker said with the laugh the other day at Haupt Field in the heart of the little Gloucester County town. "I had a lot of big plans, a lot of ideas about X's and O's.

"This job didn't have anything to do with X's and O's. It was all about the mind-set."

Tucker, a Sterling graduate and a longtime assistant at Delsea as well as Woodrow Wilson and Winslow Township, still has some creative thoughts about football. He warns officials before each game that the Clippers offense occasionally might line up in ways that look illegal, but are within the rules.

And what he has done at Clayton has been revolutionary, but in a way that has nothing to do with offensive systems or defensive strategy.

He has won football games.

Clayton is 3-0 for the first time since 1942.

Counting a four-game streak at the end of last season, Clayton has won seven in a row - the sixth-longest active run in the state.

"We haven't done anything," Tucker said Wednesday as the program's freshman team prepared to play Delsea and the varsity practiced on a little patch of grass adjacent to the visiting bleachers.

It's pretty remarkable that Clayton is able to field a freshman team, given that the school is the second smallest in South Jersey to offer football. Clayton has an enrollment of 237 in grades 10-12 (Wildwood is the smallest, with 194 students in grades 10-12).

And the truth is that the freshman team has only 16 players and will participate in an abbreviated schedule this season.

But that's progress.

The real progress has been made at the varsity level. In the eight seasons before Tucker's arrival, Clayton went 9-67.

In one season, the Clippers played a seven-game schedule. In another, they were outscored by 403-29. In 2005 and 2006, they were 0-20 and shut out 13 times.

"I was amazed how much this town loved football even though they weren't winning," Tucker said. "I used to come to games here, and there would always be a nice crowd."

With the help of his assistant coaches, Tucker took to changing the culture of a program that long represented a soft spot on a lot of other teams' schedules.

"The discipline was the big thing," junior two-way lineman Zach Culp said. "Things just got a lot tougher in practice and carried over to the game."

Tucker credits guys such as Culp and versatile junior Anthony Jackson as well as senior two-way lineman Mike Shields, who is out with an injury, with helping to create a new atmosphere around the program.

"It used to be, as soon as the other team scored a touchdown, these guys would hang their heads," Tucker said. "But these guys have the fighting spirit. They never quit."

The Clippers have some talented younger players. Junior Donovan Simon has thrown for 606 yards and seven touchdowns, junior Juwan Carr has rushed for 304 yards on just 21 carries (14.5-yard average) and sophomore wide receiver Elijah Rehm has 270 yards on just six catches (45-yard average).

Sophomore Tyreek Jackson, Anthony's brother, has gained 251 yards with four touchdowns on 25 carries. He scored nine touchdowns as a freshman.

"He was heavily recruited as an eighth grader," Tucker said. "His decision to stay in town and come play for us was big. His name was out there."

Tucker is a realist. He knows that Clayton's quick start has been aided by the schedule and that some tough games are ahead, starting with Friday's visit to Gloucester.

But it's the middle of October, and Clayton is undefeated, and there are South Jersey Group 1 playoff implications to the Clippers' visit to the Lions' den.

Not many guys would have been creative and daring enough to draw up that scenario on the chalkboard.

"We're a work in progress," Tucker said. "We still have a long way to go."