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Buckeyes running back in a big hurry

Freshman Maurice Clarett doesn't waste any time making an impact for Ohio State.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 29, 2002

Before he ever carried the ball for the Buckeyes, Maurice Clarett was hailed -- prematurely, it seemed -- as one of Ohio State's greatest running backs, a legend in the making.

But with his freshman season ended, save for Friday's Fiesta Bowl, the prediction doesn't sound nearly as presumptuous. And that's saying a lot.

Consider some of his predecessors in the Buckeyes backfield: Howard "Hopalong" Cassady, John Brockington, Archie Griffin, Keith Byars, Robert Smith and Eddie George. Three of them won the Heisman Trophy (Cassady, George and Griffin, twice) and all six made a mark in the NFL.

After one season the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Clarett is, statistically, ahead of them: more carries (199), more yards (1,190) and more touchdowns (14). Only Robert Smith, in his first season, exceeded Clarett's 6 yards per rush.

"I can't measure myself against anybody," Clarett said. "This has been one year, and anything can happen between now and next year, so I don't get involved with who's the greatest here or whatever."

Coach Jim Tressel agreed. "He has tremendous ability, but it's way too early to make those types of comparisons. People become legends by passing the test of time and doing extraordinary things over a long period of time. But there's no question Maurice has a great start on his career here."

And to think he might have taken that ability to Coral Gables and attended Miami instead of facing the Hurricanes (and Heisman Trophy candidate Willis McGahee) with a national championship at stake.

"I read in ESPN The Magazine that Willis was thinking about coming (to Ohio State). I told my mother last year that one of the schools I was thinking about going to was Miami, but I was too scared to fly down there," said Clarett, whose fear of flying has been alleviated by repetition, flying to and from games. "It was between Miami and Ohio State before Coach Tressel got hired."

Clarett was born in Youngstown, Ohio. Tressel coached Youngstown State for 15 years before joining the Buckeyes in 2000.

"Once Coach Tressel got the job there wasn't too much else to think about," Clarett said. "I never talked to him. I just said I was going to Ohio State, plain and simple."

"Timing is everything sometimes," Tressel said. "It worked out that as he was leaving high school, we were here and he wanted to be a Buckeye."

* * *

Clarett seems to have planned this life well. He and Deryck Toles, a Penn State linebacker three years older, are graduates of Harding High in Warren. Clarett was an eighth-grader when he heard about Toles' leadership and 3.9 grade-point average.

"I just admired him as a person, the way he carries himself, his charisma, the respect he has from others," Clarett said. He introduced himself to Toles.

"All he talked about then was how he wanted to be the next great running back, what he wanted to do once he got to high school and then college," Toles told the Dayton Daily News. "In eighth grade he already had his life planned out."

Four years later Clarett was the USA Today national offensive player of the year after rushing for 2,194 yards and 38 touchdowns as a senior at Harding High. He also caught 19 passes for 351 yards and six touchdowns.

"I was just playing around, happy to get out," he said.

Clarett increased his class load at Harding High, graduated a semester early and enrolled early at OSU. "The football environment at Ohio State helped me adjust to the speed of the game and learn the system," he said.

"You could see the way he prepared in the winter, weightlifting and so on, that he was going to give it his best shot," Tressel said. "There was no doubt about it; he was not going to be an average guy. ...

"He had such a passion to start his first game his freshman year. That's hard for someone who arrives in August. I think he got through some of the adjustments of being away from home, the new academic adjustments," Tressel said. "Things like that are always hard for young guys."

* * *

Clearly, Clarett was a fast learner, fast enough to become the first true freshman to open a season as Ohio State's starting tailback. And in his first game he rushed for 175 yards and three touchdowns in the Buckeyes' 45-21 victory over Texas Tech, and he downplayed it.

"There's always somebody who did better," he said, "so it's kind of a humbling experience."

The fast learner learned something else: Casual comments can come back to bite you.

In October he stirred things up by telling ESPN The Magazine he might challenge the NFL's rule barring players from the draft before they have been in college for three years. "One & Done?" was the cover story's headline.

"Do I think about it? It's got to go through your head," Clarett said. "I'm not saying it's something I will do. I'm not saying it's something I won't do."

He said he knows the going rate for first-round picks.

"You can always come back to school. I don't think there's a job in the world where you're going to make $113-million in 12 years. I don't think there's one job coming out of college paying that."

Tressel downplayed the interview. "He was answering a hypothetical question the same way you would answer it or I would answer it. That is, if someone offered you $100-million to go to the NFL, and you were allowed to, would you do it? Of course you would."

For now Clarett's sights are set lower: Friday's Fiesta Bowl rather than a future Super Bowl. How much he will play is not certain.

Clarett suffered nerve damage (a stinger) on his final carry in Ohio State's 19-14 win Oct. 19 at Wisconsin. The next week, in a 13-7 win against Penn State, he aggravated the injury in a first-quarter pileup.

He sat out games against Minnesota and Illinois. Between those game he rushed 14 times for 52 yards at Purdue. He returned to form with 122 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries in the season finale, a 14-9 win over Michigan.

"I'd like to think this will be a good time for him," Tressel said of the rest Clarett had since the Nov. 23 Michigan game. "But people in the medical profession tell you nerve repair takes some time. You never know what little twinge is going to give it a problem again."

-- Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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