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Contrite Clarett gets second shot at NFL combine

By RANDY COVITZ The Kansas City Star

INDIANAPOLIS — The twinkle in running back Maurice Clarett's eyes was unmistakable. His bright smile illuminated a packed conference room Thursday in the RCA Dome.

Second chances will do that for a person.

“It's kind of like a blessing that I got a second chance to make a first impression,'' Clarett said of his highly unusual, if not unprecedented, second trip to the NFL Scouting Combine.

Clarett, 21, was far from the rebel who challenged the NFL draft eligibility rules in court last year after he was suspended as a sophomore at Ohio State.

When a federal court ruled in Clarett's favor, he reported to last year's combine immature, overweight and so out of shape, he declined to work out. But right before the draft, an appellate court upheld the NFL's rules that a player must be three years removed from high school before he is eligible for the draft.

That left Clarett in football purgatory. So he spent much of the last year in southern California working on a personal makeover. He hit the weight room. He ran, did agility drills and turned the fat into a better proportioned 234 pounds on his 6-foot frame. He even studied tapes from his high school and college games and went over defenses and blitz schemes as preparation for interviewing with NFL coaches.

“I worked on me,” said Clarett, who plans to run, lift and do anything the teams ask this weekend.

Clarett credited his attorney, David Kenner, for helping him realize he's made some mistakes since his freshman year at Ohio State, where he helped lead the Buckeyes to the 2002 national championship.

“He wasn't scared to tell me my faults and the wrongdoings I had, even when I didn't want to hear certain things,” Clarett said. “He helped me mature… The biggest thing was probably humility. I don't want to say I was humble in the past all the time.”

While Clarett was saying all the right things, he still has to convince an NFL team he hasn't lost the skills that produced 1,237 yards and 18 touchdowns in 11 games in 2002. Clarett hasn't played a snap since his freshman season, when he scored the decisive touchdown in Ohio State's 31-24 victory in double-overtime against Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. Some NFL officials haven't forgotten or forgiven the arrogant athlete who refused to work out at last year's combine.

“This is another opportunity,” said Buffalo president/general manager Tom Donahoe, who was an outspoken critic of Clarett last year. “We'll see what he does with it.”

Clarett believes he'll have the rare benefit of being a veteran of the combine and its tedious process of physical examinations and written tests as well as lifting weights and running sprints.

“I just took it a lot more serious than I did last year,” he said. “I've got a lot greater work ethic. I don't care if it's special teams, anything, just get me on the field, I want to play with anybody.”

No question, the hardest part for Clarett last year was watching others play on Saturdays and Sundays.

“When the games come on, you watch the highlights of other people and you know you could be out there doing those same things and helping your team win,” Clarett sighed.

Remarkably, Clarett has no regrets about challenging the NFL last year and was surprised when the appellate court overturned the ruling that had gone in his favor. Clarett's only regret was that after initial court verdict, Southern California sophomore wide receiver Mike Williams followed Clarett's lead by declaring himself for the draft and hiring an agent, only to be denied NFL and NCAA eligibility after the appellate court's decision.

“I probably felt more badly for him than myself,” Clarett said. “It was like I started it, and he got caught into my web. We've talked to each other a couple of times. I wish him all the best of luck. I hope he goes as high as he can in the draft.”

Had Clarett been eligible for the draft last year, he was projected to be a second- or third-round pick. Considering he's missed two full football seasons, and the depth at running back in the draft, not to mention his reputation, he may not be taken until the lower reaches of the draft, if at all.

“When you step on that field, it doesn't matter where you were drafted,” he said. “You can be Tom Brady (a sixth-round pick) for example. Or (undrafted) Priest Holmes, Kurt Warner… you can go on and on. It matters financially. But when it comes down to playing on that field, you can ask anybody I've ever played against, I don't joke around. I handle my business.

“I just can't wait to get back in the locker room. The fellowship with the teammates, hanging out with the teammates again, I just miss being around a team.”

Certainly, there will be considerable debate about Clarett in draft rooms.

Texas running back Cedric Benson, who will be a sure-fire first-round pick, believes Clarett will find a home in the NFL.

“Regardless of what he's been through, somebody is going to like him,” Benson said. “Somebody's going to love him, and somebody's going to pick him up.”
Clarett's behavior at last year's combine is the best example of why freshmen and sophomores shouldn't be eligible for the draft -- they lack maturity. Granted, a lot of upperclassmen also lack maturity, but it's much more pronounced in underclassmen.