Jeff Clay for two years (1996-97) was the top NCAA Division III wide receiver in the nation. He rewrote the Catholic University receiving record book and was twice named first-team All-American.
Clay fashioned one of the finest seasons ever for an NCAA receiver in 1997 when he led the nation in receptions (112), yards (1,625) and touchdowns (20). In a 61-21 victory over Division 1-AA La Salle, he caught 17 passes for 310 yards and four TDs.
He and quarterback Kevin Ricca helped Coach Tom Clark’s team post an undefeated regular season (10-0) and qualify for the Division III playoffs for the first time in school history.
Clay was an unanimous first-team All-American in 1997 and runner-up for the Melberger Award, the Division III equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. The Pigskin Club of Washington recognized him and Ricca as its Co-Independent Players of the Year. Clay also joined the finest Division II, III and NAIA players named to the Associated Press Little All-America first team.
After playing for the legendary Maus Collins at nearby Gonzaga College High School, Clay joined fellow newcomers Clark and Ricca at CUA in 1994. Marty Favret, his offensive coordinator at Gonzaga, took the same role with the Cardinals. The club, 1-9 the previous year, improved to 8-2.
“I’ve been doing this over 20 years at this level, and there’s still nobody like Jeff,” said Favret, now a highly successful head coach at Hampden-Sydney (Va.) College. “He was built like a fullback but had incredibly great feet and was smart.”
During his freshman year, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Clay played tight end, returned punts and caught just 10 passes. The Cards’ big-play receiver was senior Steve Wilkerson, who had 90 receptions and earned first-team All-American honors.
“We’ve Really Got Something”
Clay was in much-better shape his sophomore season and caught 66 passes for 881 yards and seven TDs.
“What we were doing on offense at the time was perfectly suited to Jeff: screens and quick slants,” Favret said. “And I don’t think people give him enough credit for his toughness. I’m probably a head coach in large part because of guys like him and Kevin Ricca that put up some great numbers for us in the ’90s.”
Favret recalled a preseason scrimmage – he thinks from 1996 – against Montgomery College – Rockville.
“They had a couple Division I kids who tried to play Jeff man-to-man and get in his face and push him around a little bit, and he made them look silly,” he said. “I remember Tommy [Clark] and I saying, ‘Wow, we’ve really got something with this kid.’”
In game one of the 1996 season, a 68-11 romp at Muhlenberg, four of Clay’s seven receptions went for touchdowns. In CUA’s 45-14 victory over Hampden-Sydney, he grabbed nine passes for 203 yards and two scores. The win was the Cards’ fourth of six straight.
Clay finished his junior season with 81 receptions for 1,460 yards and 16 TDs and was a consensus first-team All-American.
He picked up right where he left off in the 1997 season opener – a 49-7 victory over Greensboro – when he collected 15 passes for 210 yards and four TDs. Ricca threw for a school-record six touchdowns, a mark he would tie five games later against La Salle.
CUA kept the first perfect regular season in school history alive with a 44-22 win over Albright. Early in the second quarter, Clay got behind two defenders and caught a 73-yard scoring strike from Ricca, sprinting the final 40 yards. It was the Lions’ first loss of the year and propelled the Cardinals to their first postseason appearance since facing Arizona State in the 1940 Sun Bowl.
Clay punctuated his brilliant career in the Cards’ 44-33 loss at Trinity (Texas) by catching an NCAA playoff-record 17 passes for 247 yards and four TDs.
“He had the vision of a Marcus Allen-type of running back,” Favret said. “He’d take that little quick screen we threw five, six, seven times a game, and sometimes he’d end all the way on the other side of the field. You just don’t teach that stuff. And he could break tackles. He had that running back set of skills for a guy playing wide receiver, with soft hands.
“A lot of the reason our offense was so successful was because he was so good.”
An Outstanding Career
Clay’s 112 receptions and 20 TDs that season remain atop the CUA record book. His receiving yards total ranks second to Nick Bublavi, who amassed 1,797 yards in 2005. Bublavi that year also eclipsed Clay’s single-game reception yards mark with 386 against La Salle.
Clay caught a school-best 269 passes to rank No. 1 in program history. His receiving touchdown total (44) is also tops, and his 4,101 yards ranks second to Bublavi’s 4,485. Clay’s 15.2-yard average per reception ranks sixth. His 266 points is third behind teammates’ Andrew Notarfrancesco’s 398 and Matt Taylor’s 328.
The Cardinals’ record during Clay and Ricca’s four years was 31-7-1 (.808). The pair were among Division II and III players invited to Shreveport, La., to play in the 1998 USA III/Mardi Gras All-Star Classic. Clay had workouts for the Washington Redskins and New Orleans Saints.
Clay, who earned a degree in communications from CUA in 1998, added a master’s degree in management and public leadership from Johns Hopkins University. He is now a detective in the Washington Metropolitan Police Department.
By Chris McManes (August 2015)