By RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Back during spring practice, Ohio State tailback Lydell Ross vowed that this year he wanted to be "the man" for the Buckeyes.
Instead, he watched with some consternation as freshman Maurice Clarett took over the starting job and made it his own, piling up yards and adoring fans through the Buckeyes' first three games.
"It has been a little hard," Ross, a sophomore, said after Tuesday's practice. "I've pretty much been trying to work as hard as I could to come in and start like I said I wanted to. It's been hard to see Maurice come in and start over me. But I just keep working hard and whatever happens, happens."
What has happened is a knee injury that will likely cause Clarett to miss No. 6 Ohio State's game Saturday against Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium.
Clarett, who gained 471 yards and scored six touchdowns in the Buckeyes' 3-0 start, underwent arthroscopic surgery on Tuesday. He was on crutches Tuesday. Team orthopedic specialist Dr. Chris Kaeding termed it unlikely but not impossible that Clarett will play against the Bearcats (1-1).
Now Ross, fellow sophomore Maurice Hall and redshirt freshman JaJa Riley will get a moment in the sun. Ohio State's coaches are anything but worried.
"There's no way we're concerned about this weekend in terms of, are we going to have somebody that can run the football," running backs coach Tim Spencer said. "We've got some guys who CAN run the ball. I feel very good about that."
An injury is never good news, but the timing couldn't have been better for Spencer and the rest of the Ohio State coaches. In recent weeks, it appeared Ross was beaten down by all the talk about Clarett. He was seeing mop-up duty and was even getting a lot of practice time at fullback, a position he made clear wasn't his first choice.
While expressing regret that Clarett was injured, Ross said he relished the opportunity to get some carries in a game that was not already won.
"With him being out, they are definitely going to look down the line to other tailbacks. Me, Maurice, JaJa, we're all going to be there. We're all going to be waiting," Ross said. "Like everyone's been saying, this is a strong stable of running backs we've got here. We'll definitely be tested."
It became clear that Clarett had won the job after he went for 175 yards in the opener against Texas Tech. He solidified that with 230 yards against Washington State last week.
Clarett has 63 carries so far this season -- 12 more than Ross, Hall and Riley combined.
Even though Clarett was clearly the No. 1 tailback -- and has been mentioned on several early Heisman Trophy lists -- his backups have supported him while hoping they wouldn't end up spending the rest of their careers on the sideline watching him.
"I still feel we're all the same, no matter who was in there we could do probably the same thing" as Clarett, Hall said. "It was just a matter of he was in there and he took advantage of it. That's what you have to do."
Linebacker Matt Wilhelm, who faces the Buckeyes' four tailbacks every day in practice, said he doesn't believe there will be any dropoff if Clarett doesn't play.
"We've got four tailbacks who can start at other schools," he said. "In no way am I worried that the offense is not going to be able to hold up their end of the bargain on Saturday. We've got more talent than we know what to do with now."
Head coach Jim Tressel said this is a chance for another tailback to step out of the committee behind Clarett.
"I have a lot of confidence in Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall, and JaJa Riley has been chomping at the bit for opportunities," he said.
He said this is an example of why players should always be prepared to go in because injuries are common.
"You always say you never know when those things are going to happen and they look at you like, 'Yeah, right, coach,'" Tressel said with a laugh. "But it's true. You never know when the team is going to need you."
It appears that time has come for Ohio State's three backups.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)