By RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio State's seniors chose sides Wednesday for Saturday's annual Scarlet-Gray intrasquad scrimmage at Ohio Stadium.
The first tailback chosen wasn't Lydell Ross, who was second on the team with 419 yards rushing last season as a freshman.
It wasn't Maurice Hall, who saw spot duty at tailback last year and led the team in kickoff returns (24) and kickoff return yardage (523).
It also wasn't acclaimed redshirt freshman JaJa Riley, a prime recruit last year after a sparkling career in high school in San Diego.
The first tailback picked -- obviously a surprise to many of his teammates -- was Maurice Clarett, the reigning Associated Press Mr. Football in Ohio, just five months removed from a sterling career at Warren Harding High School. Clarett enrolled at Ohio State in January and has impressed the coaches -- and apparently the seniors on the Gray squad -- with his savvy and his play this spring.
Clarett, a bulky 6-foot, 230-pounder who played all spring with his thumb and hand bandaged, wasn't ready to proclaim himself as the next Archie Griffin -- or even the heir apparent to starter Jonathan Wells.
"It's just a draft. It's just for fun," he said. "It doesn't mean anything."
Branden Joe, vying for the starting fullback slot with Brandon Schnittker, said the rest of Ohio State's backs were shocked when Clarett's name was called first by the Gray captains.
"I was surprised and the other backs were surprised," Joe said. "But we're confident in Maurice and what he's shown us in just 13 practices. It surprised the players, but I don't think it surprised the coaches."
What was known about Clarett before he came to Ohio State was that he was powerful and durable. What has been discovered about him is that he is a fast learner, works as hard or harder than anyone in the weight room and during practice, and can do more than just run straight ahead with the ball. He has shown an ability to turn the corner, take and dish out punishment and catch passes out of the backfield.
"I've been surprised by his football knowledge," running backs coach Tim Spencer said. "He wants to know what he's supposed to be doing and he takes a lot of pride in knowing what he's doing."
Spencer also said he didn't think Clarett's selection in the player draft meant that much. Spencer said the choice was a tribute to Clarett's versatility because he also can help a team on punt and kickoff returns and is a ferocious blocker.
Head coach Jim Tressel said Clarett should be proud that his name was called first.
"I think it's a credit to Maurice. He came in in January. He was a man without a country. He wasn't in the 2001 class and the 2002 class wasn't here. He was kind of alone in his adjustment," Tressel said. "And 15 weeks later for the Gray team in unison that they wanted to pick him first, he obviously earned some respect."
Clarett declined to make too much of the compliment.
"I took it for what it was," he said. "This isn't the first game. This is not Texas Tech (the Buckeyes' opening opponent). You can't read anything into it. I just take it with a grain of salt."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)