ORONO, Maine — Jamal Clay’s high school football highlights tape on YouTube is an eye-opener.
He demonstrates speed, elusiveness and a strong arm playing quarterback and wide receiver for Mahwah High School in New Jersey.
Clay has continued to use some of those skills at the University of Maine. The difference is he has played exclusively on defense.
His experience and leadership in the secondary will be pivotal Saturday when 11th-ranked UMaine travels to No. 17 Villanova for a key Colonial Athletic Association game.
The 5-foot-10, 195-pound free safety has anchored the secondary after earning the starting job last year. Clay is the Black Bears’ fourth-leading tackler with 32.
“As he continued to get experience, I think his confidence grew,” said defensive backs coach Joe Harasymiak. “That has let his athletic ability take over, and now he just flies around and makes plays.”
Clay is another in a long line of UMaine players who are playing a position other than the one they starred at in high school. He had hoped he might play wide receiver at UMaine, but it wasn’t in the cards.
“Our defensive coaches thought this kid can run, he’s got the skills that we think can turn him into a corner, perhaps a safety,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove.
Clay said he hadn’t played much on defense at Mahwah, where he played with UMaine teammate John Ebeling.
“I was a corner, but I didn’t get much action,” Clay said. “I still joke with [offensive coordinator Kevin Bourgoin] to give me an offensive play, even if it’s just blocking.”
It took time for Clay to warm to playing defense and to college life, all while on the bench.
“I had a rough freshman and sophomore year, not being there mentally,” he admitted.
Clay eventually worked his way onto the field on special teams and in UMaine’s “nickel” defensive packages during the Bears’ Football Championship Subdivision playoff run in 2011.
“He’s a kid who has grown up tremendously while he’s been here,” Cosgrove said.
Clay honed his skills at safety under the direction of his coaches and the leadership of former UMaine safeties Jerron McMillian, now with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, and Trevor Coston.
“I saw their approach to practice and their approach to games, and they didn’t take anything for granted,” Clay said.
Last season, he racked up 64 tackles, including 32 in the last four games, with three interceptions.
Harasymiak praised Clay for his willingness to devote time to learning his craft.
“He prepares himself so well that he’s confident in the game,” Harasymiak said. “He’s always asking the questions that might be one step ahead of the other guys.”
Both coaches mentioned Clay’s experience directing an offense has given him a better perspective on how to read offenses from the defensive backfield.
Clay was a late find for UMaine, which recruited him after his injury-shortened senior season. He suffered a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
However, the coaching staff recognized Clay’s potential. That vote of confidence meant a lot to Clay, whose scholarship offers had dwindled.
“They still believed in me, and I’ll be forever grateful for that,” he said, pointing out he was in a knee brace and on crutches during his recruiting visit to Orono.
Clay also has applied himself in the classroom. He graduated in May with a degree in communications and is working on a second degree in child development and family relations.
He hopes to pursue a career in sports journalism, but Clay’s short-term goal is to set a winning tone for UMaine.
“He’s developed and matured into one of the great leaders on our football team, and he’s done that as a student, an athlete and as a representative of our program,” Cosgrove said.