Confident Clarett can back it up

Maurice Clarett has become famous for his confidence, but can he back it up? Dave Biddle takes a look at that as well as the rest of the RB situation.

Maurice Clarett is a guy who might come across as cocky with some of the things that he says.
"They already have my name on that Mr. Football trophy, I just need to go down there and pick it up," he said prior to his senior season at Warren Harding High School.

"I want to be the man for all 13, or 14, or however many games we play this year at Ohio State. Basically, I want to be the man every play - it's no mystery. If someone doesn't feel that way, I guess they're just doubting themselves. I've told coach (Jim) Tressel and I'll tell any player on the team, I want to be the one - just like in high school - that everyone can count on to make plays," Clarett said after the spring game.

Sounds pretty cocky, huh?

But if you listen to Clarett long enough, you'll realize he's not cocky, just supremely confident. He says what he feels, but usually backs it up. And you know how the old saying goes: "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up."

Clarett made good on his Mr. Football promise last year by putting up some gaudy statistics (2,194 rushing yards and 38 rushing touchdowns; 19 receptions for 351 yards and six scores). His best game was a 401-yard, five-TD performance in Harding's playoff victory over then No.1 ranked Lakewood St. Edward. And aside from being named the state's best, Clarett was honored as USA Today's national offensive player of the year.

The 6-foot, 230-pound Clarett graduated from high school one semester early so he could enroll at OSU winter quarter and take part in spring drills. The last Buckeye running back to do something like that? None other than Lee Tressel, Jim's father.

But that story didn't have a very sweet ending. Lee Tressel was the star of an OSU spring game in the early 1940's, but was called into active duty for World War II and never ended up playing a real game for the Buckeyes.

You might think that the OSU coaching staff isn't in favor of Clarett's outspoken ways. But the coaches talk him up almost as much as he talks himself up.

"Maurice is vocal sometimes, sure, but he always works hard and is a natural leader out there," Tressel said. "Whether you want to follow him or not, he thinks he's a leader. But that's just his makeup - he'll lead no matter if someone is following him or not."

Tressel thinks Clarett made some serious strides this spring and expects him to live up to the hype come fall.

"I think Maurice is very bright," Tressel said. "He learns something every time he carries the ball. Even if it's a mistake, he learns from it. I think Maurice Clarett is going to be everything we hoped he'd be."

Running backs coach Tim Spencer, someone who is usually pretty hard on his players, also raved about Clarett.

"I was impressed with a lot of things about Maurice Clarett this spring, but especially his ability to learn our system," Spencer said. "He was in a system in high school that was similar to ours because (Harding coach Thom) McDaniels does a little bit of studying with us at times, so he was familiar with what we do, but he picked it up remarkably fast... What you really love about Maurice is that he's a guy who always wants to be in there. He wants to be in there on punt returns, kickoff returns, kickoff coverage, he wants to be in there for everything. You've got to love a guy like that because he's a ballplayer who just wants to get on the field," Spencer said.

Clarett doesn't think his attitude makes him anything special.

"I came to Ohio State and I expect to play just like everyone else," he said. "If everybody didn't expect to play, they wouldn't be here. Everyone expects to play every time they step on the practice field. It doesn't matter what drill we're doing, I just want to play. That's why I do all the extra film work and all the hard work in the weight room, because I expect to play."

Even for this confident young man, there is one aspect of the college game he's still getting used to.

"Everything is kind of fast in college, everything's going at a faster pace. But it seems like the more you play, the slower the game gets. Well, I don't want to say slower, but the more you know, the easier it is to react to things," Clarett said.

For now, we can put to rest any talk of which OSU running back will emerge as "the man" this fall because two, or three, will play on a regular basis.

Lydell Ross (6-0, 210, So.) won the job as Jonathan Wells' backup last year and finished the year with 419 rushing yards (3.5 per carry) and six touchdowns. He became the first OSU running back since Robert Smith to go over 100 yards in one game (Indiana) and most fans expected him to be "the man" for the next three years.

But Ross suffered a minor injury during winter conditioning and was never at full speed during the spring.

"Lydell pulled a hamstring just before the spring and that kind of stayed with him. But he toughed it out and was always out there working," Spencer said.

Despite the nagging hamstring, Ross finished the spring bracketed as the co-No.1 running back on the depth chart along with the speedy Maurice Hall (5-10, 190, So.). Some practice observers believe that Hall actually surpassed Ross this spring, but that is something that will have to be proven in preseason camp (you can't call something that begins Aug.1 "fall" camp).

Ja Ja Riley (6-2, 195, Fr.) is another guy who shouldn't be counted out. He has good hands and will be a solid player down the road. However, barring injury to one of the other three, it will be tough for Riley to see the field this year.

How does Tressel view the logjam at tailback? Like it's a problem he enjoys having.

"We are very excited about what we have the potential to be at that position," he said. "We don't have a lot of game experience back there, but we have a talented, well-rounded group. They can all run and you can also put them out there in the slot and get them one-on-one with linebackers. I also think they'll be satisfactory blockers - that's something we worked really hard on this spring.

"I don't foresee a problem as far as playing time because we're always going to play at least two running backs here at Ohio State. This year in particular, we are trying to get as many tough, fast and explosive guys on the field as we can. Believe me, we're thrilled to have all of these running backs."

So, will Clarett get to be "the man" for all 14 games like he wants to be? Probably not. But you have to like his confidence.

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