Cleared by the NCAA to practice only this Monday, Guilford has been struggling to catch up. Not only is he a true freshman, but due to NCAA rules, he was not allowed to have contact until after a specified amount of time.
"My first day of contact was actually yesterday," said Ira. "This is really my first week of practicing."
From joining the team August 5 not knowing whether he would play (offense or defense) to beginning practice August 11 to extensive playing time in the Jersey Scrimmage August 16, that would be enough to make even the most prepared freshman running back's head spin, let alone one that reported to camp as a defensive back.
Yet Ira seems to be doing his best to take it all in stride and make progress.
"Well, you know this is my first week of really being out there practicing," he said. "I think I did some things pretty decent, but I also have to work on a lot of things. For my first week I just feel I am in the learning process and that I have a far way to go."
Watching the scrimmage yesterday, you could both sides of the spectrum. At the start of the day, the wheels in his head seemed to be spinning. He bobbled a pass, had multiple short runs, and once even had to be repeatedly called by the coaches to get off the field before the next play. However, by the end of the day, Ira was making rapid progress with authoritative runs between the tackles, some shifty moves when in space, and best of all, no fumbles.
Asked about the change in his performance from start to finish, Ira indicated that it was largely due to his relative inexperience.
"It was a confidence thing because I really haven't had the chance to experience the college level of running the ball until yesterday a little bit," he said. "It was a matter of being more comfortable, knowing when my blocks were coming, and things like that. I definitely think I got more confident as the game went on."
Still, lest anyone get the wrong impression, Ira has a long sojourn ahead before he is ready to play every down for the Buckeyes as a RB. Even with extra hours of study on his own, much of learning has to come with repetition and practice, neither of which young Guilford has had in large quantities. Further, while he indicated his pleasure with his abilities to cut back at times and gain yardage, he commented that he has some serious improvement to do in blocking. Specifically, Ira identified "recognition in terms of knowing who to block and on certain things of just learning the scheme of the offense - I have to work on."
Not only that, but there is the small matter of learning the playbook, and with August 30 grinding inexorably closer every hour, Ira is running short on time.
The timeline for Ira Guilford:
·Fall 2002. Ira is recruited as a top defensive back in New Jersey. Ohio State has 4 running backs on the roster, three of them healthy.
·February 2003. Guilford signs with Ohio State. The Buckeyes have two healthy tailbacks and one on the mend.
·Summer 2003. Guilford graduates from high school. He begins preparation to play defensive back for Ohio State. The Buckeyes are back to three healthy tailbacks.
·August 1, 2003. Ohio State is down to two healthy scholarship tailbacks. Ira and the coaches begin to revisit his position.
·August 5, 2003. Players report to campus amidst the controversy surrounding Maurice Clarett. Questions about the tailback position are tantamount, but even without Clarett the Buckeyes have two healthy players.
·August 6, 2003. Guilford shows up to picture day but is not able to take part in the photo because of a paperwork snafu. He is uncertain which position he will play at this point, commenting, "I really don't know. Originally I was going to come in as a defensive back, but with the running back situation, they [the coaches] told me that I might get a lot more reps on offense than expected. Either way, I am just ready to work my way on the field and am definitely excited about the opportunities."
·August 11, 2003. Cleared to begin practices, Ira is put at running back. Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross both sport yellow jerseys during the second session of practice indicating injuries. Ira is wearing #3.
·August 15, 2003. Ira is allowed to have contact for the first time per NCAA rules.
·August 16, 2003. Guilford sees extensive playing time for Ohio State and currently sits at second on the depth chart for the tailback position. He now wears #5.
The forgotten man from 2002, he has to be kicking himself for his impatience and rash decision to transfer right now. Instead of embracing a second set of golden pants from two consecutive victories over archrival Michigan in November 2002, JaJa took a long, slow walk down the tunnel to the Buckeye locker room. Instead of spending December preparing to play the vaunted Hurricanes in the Fiesta Bowl, JaJa was looking around to find a where he thought he might see the football field more quickly. Instead of winning a national championship and being able to savor the moment of reaching the pinnacle of perfection at 14-0 in January, he was preparing to enroll at UNLV - a team that finished 5-7 in 2002 in the Mountain West Conference.
Now, the twisted irony is that had he stayed at Ohio State and stuck it out as a team player, he might have had all of his dreams come true. Ross is banged up. Clarett is gone for who knows how long. Hall has a knee that is giving him trouble, and while he assures those who are listening that it is no problem, the coaches and doctors are taking no chances. Where before JaJa might have sat at fourth on the depth chart, he would be at worst second right now and possibly even first if healthy. As a bigger back, he and Hall could have formed the combination that the coaching staff is undoubtedly pining for right now. Instead, while Guilford and Hall play for Ohio State in 2003, JaJa will find himself sitting on the bench once again.
Even when he is finally cleared to play in August of 2004, Jaja will not perform his feats of athletic prowess before a stadium teeming with 100,000 frenzied fans and millions of spectators but for a program that has been invited to play in just 3 bowls since 1984 and averaged 27,582 fans per game last season.
The possible lessons here are legion. Among them are:
1. Football is a team game. That means players are required to do what is best for the team rather than one's own personal interests. For one player, that might mean playing out of position for a season. Cie Grant did that in 2001 and reaped incredible benefits from the experience in 2002. For another player, that means sitting patiently on the bench and focusing energies on learning their assignments while preparing the first team for their next game via the scout team. Troy Smith and Justin Zwick are still doing this, but barring some sort of disaster, one of those two will be the starting quarterback for Ohio State in 2004 and will enjoy the sweet fruit of their labors.
2. Good things can and do come to those who wait and persevere. Unless something changes, Maurice Hall could be the starting tailback for Ohio State on August 30 on national television. This is the same Maurice Hall that finished the Fiesta Bowl third on the depth chart and only touched the ball once - on a kickoff return. This is the same Maurice Hall that spent his freshman year mostly as a kick returner while Lydell Ross garnered all the headlines. Hall, however, spent the off-season improving his physical conditioning and adding more muscle to withstand the beating a starting running back takes.
3. Those that do not persevere or run from competition will find themselves playing the "what if" game. JaJa is probably one such player, but there are undoubtedly others. How many top running back recruits spurned Ohio State's interest last fall simply because of the depth chart? Had they been willing to be a team player and wait their turn, they would likely have seen action in their very first game. Instead, they will probably find themselves on the bench wherever they landed. Talk about ironic.
There is still no word as to when Maurice might be able to rejoin the team. Do not hold your breath on Clarett playing before the middle of September. Consider what has to happen before Clarett can play in a game.
First, he must be cleared by the NCAA. This means that they will have found no evidence of any wrongdoing on his part. Considering the speed at which the organization normally moves, any decision on their part prior to August 30 of this magnitude has to be viewed like the feat of Roger Bannister when he broke the four minute mile in 1954 (it was widely considered impossible up until the day he proved it could be done).
Second, Maurice must be cleared by the coaching staff. If Quinn Pitcock merited a suspension for underage alcohol consumption in August of 2002, then it would stand to reason that Clarett will not skate after exaggerating on a police report.
Third, Maurice Clarett must have five days of practice before he can resume contact. That means that even if he were to be cleared today, he still could not put on pads and be hit until Saturday.
Fourth, Clarett must get into football shape. Football is not track. Football is not purely about conditioning. Football is a completely different activity than either of the other two (thus the different names). Just because he has been working out on his own does not mean that Maurice could step in and play. Maybe he could, but then again - maybe not.
Finally, forgotten in all of this controversy is Maurice Clarett's shoulder. Is it back to full strength? Were the coaches intending on bringing him along slowly to minimize the possibility of injury? How will they handle it if or when he is able to return to the team?
E-mail Charles at firstname.lastname@example.org