TAMPA - In the back yard of his Baton Rouge home, Michael Clayton's father, Milton, would sling passes at his son's face and warn him over and over about the importance of catching the ball with his hands, not his body.
A drop would lead to significant razzing, not to mention a bad nose day.
"I couldn't drop the ball," Clayton said. "If I dropped it, it would bust me in the nose. He threw it a hundred miles an hour at my head, so I had to catch it. It was something that formulated my instincts to catch the ball with my hands."
That, and all the other instructions Clayton has gotten through 22 years, are paying off in his first NFL season.
Sunday, in a 19-7 win over the Bears, Clayton had another solid game. The 15th overall pick out of LSU finished his seventh game with six catches for 62 yards and a touchdown and leads all rookies with 37 receptions and 505 yards.
"He's really something, isn't he?" coach Jon Gruden said. "He's catching balls away from his body, he's got a flamboyant style that I feed off of. He energizes me. I'm so excited to have him here. Hopefully, we can start selling some of those No.80 jerseys down at those stores."
Clayton is proving a hot commodity for the offense on third down. Three of Clayton's grabs - for 14, 12 and 13 yards - came on third and long and resulted in first downs.
"I see a guy playing with a lot of confidence right now," veteran tight end Ken Dilger said. "He came in and we didn't know what to expect, but as a first-rounder you would have to be pretty good. He kept his mouth shut and worked his butt off and learned this offense. It's paying off for him right now."
And for the Bucs. Clayton is coming up with acrobatic grabs and has turned into the go-to guy on third down.
"Any time you get a guy like that, especially on third down, where he will get a double or triple team, it'll leave someone else wide open," Dilger said.
"It's nice to have Joe (Jurevicius) back as well, and so to have two guys back there, it's going to help the offense out a lot."
Clayton, who caught his second touchdown of the season on a 6-yard slant, said he relishes the chance to make a play on third down.
"It's the situation and I have to take advantage of it," he said.
"It's my job, that's why they drafted me in the first round, to catch balls. ... It definitely gives (Brian) Griese the confidence of knowing all you have to do is put (the ball) in the vicinity and I feel comfortable catching it, getting down and taking the hit."
Those difficult catches are serving to inject a shot of electricity into the offense.
"He's an energy guy and what I respect most is his willingness to work and get better," Jurevicius said. "I don't see a hint of cockiness. He's confident and he plays like a 10-year veteran.
"The guy's phenomenal."
It is that maturity that has teammates most impressed.
"Michael has the confidence and maturity to handle everything at a young age in his career," Dilger said. "In (offseason workouts), you could see the brilliance that he could bring. He's a tall physical wide receiver and we knew if he could just learn how to run routes in the NFL, he could be one hell of a player.
"Well, he's come a long way since those days and we're glad to have him on our team."
Veteran Tim Brown, who has seen and played with his share of great receivers, said Clayton's attitude and desire to learn, as much as his talent, are big factors in his early success.
"If you're a football player and you're willing to listen and you're willing to take some instructions from people who have gone there and done that, you have a chance," Brown said. "This kid from the day I walked in he's attached his hip (to me) and has tried to learn everything I know, and I have tried to impart upon him everything I could possibly impart upon him.
"You could see him getting more and more comfortable out there. ... He already is a good football player and I think he has potential to be a great one. Talent is the main thing, but you have to be able to put that out in the right way and this kid can do it all."