Clarett's Rise Has Tressel Juggling Playing Time For Others

By RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio State coach Jim Tressel says he wants a balanced offense, although this obviously isn't what he has in mind.

While freshman tailback Maurice Clarett continues to gain yardage and prominence as a Heisman Trophy contender, Tressel is left with the uncomfortable balancing act of trying to keep his other running backs happy.

"I wish there were more balls," Tressel said Tuesday during his fifth-ranked Buckeyes' preparations for Saturday's Big Ten game at Northwestern.

Two weeks ago, Clarett was sidelined while rehabilitating his right knee from arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn ligament.

Lydell Ross got the start in his place against Cincinnati and responded with 130 yards on 23 carries in a 23-19 victory.

A week later, Clarett stepped back into the spotlight, carrying 21 times for 104 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-17 win over Indiana in the Big Ten opener.

Prior to the game against Indiana, when it appeared Clarett wouldn't be 100 percent, Ross told reporters he thought he would get the majority of carries against the Hoosiers.

He ended up with two attempts for 11 yards.

So, just like a Little League coach who has to find time to get in both superstars and benchwarmers, Tressel must juggle Clarett's playing time with that of Ross, Maurice Hall and JaJa Riley -- while trying to keep them all happy.

"I know if I'm Lydell Ross, and I go from 21 carries down to two, I'd rather have 21," Tressel said. "I guess we've got to have the faith within the group that we're going to do what we think is the best."

Clarett, the former Warren Harding star, now has 575 yards on 84 attempts in four games to Ross' 255 on 55 carries in five games. It was Ross who, as a freshman, was the backup last season to Jonathan Wells. He spoke all spring about wanting to be "the man" in Ohio State's robust running attack.

After Clarett got off to a fast start, Ross changed his tune. He said he could coexist with Clarett.

"Me and Maurice, I think we could split time," Ross said last week. "It'd be nice."

Instead, the sophomore is watching from the sidelines as Clarett takes over the job as the Buckeyes' No. 1 option. For that matter, Clarett might also be options No. 2 through No. 10.

Several publications already have come out with the early line on the Heisman race -- with Clarett among the top handful of contenders.

"As players, we sort of see it here and there -- fans may say something about it," wide receiver Michael Jenkins said about the Heisman talk. "But he has a good handle on it. He really downplays it. He doesn't worry too much about it."

Tressel believes it's important that the Buckeyes have several tailbacks that they can shuttle in to give opposing defenses different looks. He also gushes over Ross' abilities.

"Lydell Ross has got to be a huge part of our offense," Tressel said. "He just has to be."

But when asked if Clarett lacks anything that would prevent him from being the Buckeyes' full-time tailback, Tressel said the answer was no.

"He catches it well. I think he protects the passer well, obviously he runs the ball well inside or out. I can't think of a thing that (he lacks)," Tressel said. "I want him to want the ball every play. That's a good thing. Just like I want Lydell to want the ball perhaps more than he's getting it."

Clarett still is recovering from his knee surgery but is obviously not feeling any ill effects based on his production on Saturday. Team doctors have said it will be 21 days until the stitches from the Sept. 17 surgery are completely healed. He had to have them re-stitched during Saturday's game, when the incisions started to bleed.

After yet another big game, this time against Indiana, Clarett pronounced himself fit and ready to go for the rest of the season.

"I try to be one of the toughest people on the team, because people winning games have got to be tough," Clarett said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)