Clarett arrives as wild card

2-19-04, 7:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

INDIANAPOLIS _ The Maurice Clarett miniseries rolled into downtown here Thursday in a news conference more heavily attended than Howard Dean's farewell from the presidential race.

The erstwhile Ohio State running back didn't exactly win any preferential contests at the NFL scouting combine among league executives and coaches when his first decision as a professional not to work out this weekend in the RCA Dome was called "a farce" by one team official. But the Bengals figure to be one of the teams that are going to take a long look at him if he does as expected and lasts past the first round in the April 24-25 draft.

"I have to do more research on him, but people are going to have to take an interest," said Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson. "He's going to be a factor. He's a talented guy. He's shown he can play. Where he goes in the draft, that's the 64,000 question. What is going to happen is somebody may feel they have to take him at a certain point."

Who and where is anybody's guess. Some say as high as the second round. Many say the third round. Not many say the first and the Bengals certainly wouldn't take him there at No. 17. But it's no secret they are looking at college prospects with a backup to running back Rudi Johnson in mind.

Take Corey Dillon out of the mix, and they've got no one on the roster behind Johnson who has consistently carried the ball 20-25 times a game, or has more than 116 carries in a season. Brandon Bennett isn't that kind of back and he turned 31 two weeks during an offseason the club has shown no indication they are going to re-sign him. But Anderson thinks third-year Kenny Watson could be capable of doing that after he rushed for 534 yards on 122 carries in 2002 for Washington.

"We don't know if we've got that guy or not. We have to find out," Anderson said. "Kenny is going to get a chance. Let's see."

Plus, Anderson knows his best running backs have popped out of the second round (Dillon, Ickey Woods, Harold Green), and Johnson arrived the draft's second day three years ago.

"No question you can find a guy if he fits and he's there," he said. "It's important if you draft a guy like that, he has to be effective because you can't rely on just one guy for 16 games."

There is an impending vacuum. Dillon seeks a trade and although no suitors surfaced here Thursday, the thinking is the Bengals will be able to grant their all-time rusher's demand. But indications here in the lobby Thursday are the two teams perceived with the most interested in him Dallas and Washington aren't interested enough. At least not yet. Tampa Bay remains a mystery team.

The Bengals are one of many scoping out the controversial Clarett, the 20-year-old who has successfully challenged the NFL's eligibility rule. He played only one season in parts of 11 games as he battled a tender shoulder and knee, has been plagued by a succession of off-field problems since that freshman year, and fired more questions Thursday when he walked into his news conference seven pounds over weight at 237 and said he was taking his mother's advice to wait and work out the first week of April.

But Clarett has drawn Heisman Trophy interest as much for his controversies as well as for his speed and size that made him a dangerous 6-foot, 230-pounder in college. He has two elements that have always appealed to the Bengals as a big back with a Buckeye pedigree. Ohio State is the school that has supplied the Bengals with the most players at 18, and they made Clarett one of their 60 15-minute interviews the combine grants each team this weekend in a field of 300 players.

The Bengals are also set to interview Thursday night and Friday other backs that figure to go before Clarett, such as Florida State running back Greg Jones, and about the same time or after Clarett in Notre Dame's Julius Jones, and Arkansas' Cedric Cobbs, guys the Bengals coached last month in the Senior Bowl.

But the story of the day was clearly Clarett and the league's reaction to the kid usurping the three-year rule. Bills General Manager Tom Donahoe ripped Clarett for not working out and other execs thought his 237-pound frame looked out of shape and "soft."

"It's a farce," said Donahoe, who claimed the decision was even worse, "because he didn't play this year. The immediate question is what kind of shape is he in? He's not prepared to work out, so it's a question. That's how I look at it. I don't know how anybody else sees it, but that's how I do."

And Donahoe doesn't want to hear comparisons to Willis McGahee, the Miami of Florida running back nobody thought would go in the first round last year because he tore his anterior cruciate knee ligament in the national championship game. But Donahoe shocked the world and took him No. 23 with Buffalo's first pick.

"Let's not put Clarett in the same category as McGahee. That's not fair to Willis," Donahoe said. "Willis' attitude-wise and character-wise, there's a big difference."

The Bengals aren't pleased Clarett isn't working out, either, but Anderson was impressed with Clarett after spending a few minutes with him Wednesday night.

"I always think it's in a player's best interest to work out here because you can't ask for a better stage. You do it in front of everybody and how often do you get to do that. He's got some time to get to where he wants to be and we'll see what the numbers are then," Anderson said. "He's an impressive young man to talk to. He's kind of level headed about this whole situation. In today's times, they are all young. The most important thing is not the guy's age, but is the guy's maturity factor."

Clarett took plenty of heat in his news conference about that maturity factor. His sophomore year at Ohio State was derailed by a school suspension spawned by a $100 misdemeanor charge for false filing for inflating the cost of stolen goods, as well as receiving improper benefits.

"I think so," said Clarett, when asked if teams can trust him. "When I sit down with these GMs and head coaches I think they'll have a good understanding of me, where I'm coming from, the certain way I act about certain things, the certain way I feel about a lot of things. There's so many tests here, they can pretty much find out anything they want to find out. They don't have the chance to pick up a paper, they finally get to meet me now.

"A lot of things I thought they would know about me coming in they had no idea about," he said. "Eighty percent of them said they don't even look at the press or read the press clippings or pay attention to y'all."

Give the kid this. He knows he's a marked man, and he knows the big boys are coming after him.

"I think I got a lot quicker on my feet. I've been doing a lot of foot ladders and quickness drills," Clarett said. "Probably trying to avoid more hits than college. I thought my first year I had something to prove so I was trying to run people over and do things like that. I think I improved my quickness and lateral movement in order to make people miss.

"I think the first year there's going to be a lot of shots taken at me to see if I'm physically durable and mentally there," he said. "But I think after the first year they'll say, 'All right, we accept him into the league.' Just like it was when I came to Ohio State, I had to take a couple hits from upperclassmen. After that they accepted me." I wouldn't say so. I'd probably do a little more training. The training I was doing before was like regular training, not knowing which way the decision was going to be made. Now to kick it in like another four weeks of high intensity, get my body a little more fine-tuned, put myself in the best possible position."

Not many league execs were impressed by Clarett's off-season conditioning, but he said he has been doing agility and other football-related drills. He said he didn't think it was a big deal he's not working out.

"I wouldn't say so. I'd probably do a little more training," Clarett said. "The training I was doing before was like regular training, not knowing which way the decision was going to be made. Now to kick it in like another four weeks of high intensity, get my body a little more fine-tuned, put myself in the best possible position."

The 5-9, 217-pound Julius Jones is making certain he works out as he tries to explode into the draft's first day and out of the fourth-round projections. He knows he's got to make up some ground after missing all of 2002 because of academic problems, and while he may have that character question, he admits it changed him for the better.

Anderson got a good look at Julius Jones while he coached him in the Senior Bowl and compares his size and quickness to James Brooks. They like his ability to make people miss and although he's short, Anderson said, "he's well put together."

"I enjoyed their coaches. I spent a lot of time with them before and after practice," Julius said,. "They're motivators. I think I'd fit with what they do."

If Clarett is the next Dillon as he battles to stay in the first round despite negative press, then is Julius Jones the next Rudi? The Bengals would no doubt love to face the question if Greg Jones is the next Ickey or Green if he is still there when they pick in the second round.

Doubtful. The amazingly-sculpted 6-1, 249-pound Greg Jones ("A beast," says one scout) could be gone as early as late in the first round. Particularly after a Senior Bowl he was named the South's Offensive Player of the Game with two nifty touchdown runs. It seems he is all the way back from an ACL injury he suffered in the ninth game of his junior year.

"I'm about 95 percent," Greg Jones said. "I think the Senior Bowl showed I can cut on the knee and take a pounding during a game."

The scouts were extremely impressed with his seven-yard touchdown run in the Senior Bowl because he actually made a vicious cut with sudden, efficient quickness that made the play. But some times a guy just has to show up at the weigh-in.

"When he takes his shirt off," Anderson said, "oh my, he really looks the part."

Now the Bengals and the rest of the league are waiting to see what Clarett shows off in six weeks.

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