Clarett has many questions to answer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Humbled yet somewhat haughty, contrite but still harboring more than a hint of cockiness, The Unknown Commodity of the 2004 draft class arrived here Thursday for the annual combine sessions cognizant of the fact there is significant work to do in terms of rehabilitating his image in the eyes of skeptical NFL scouts.

And since Maurice Clarett intends to perform the bare minimum in physical workouts, delaying his onfield audition until early April after he has hopefully reshaped a physique left way too soft by a year of inactivity, the exiled Ohio State tailback can only make the opening pitch in the months-long selling job he must accomplish to avoid sliding down league draft boards and perhaps into the middle rounds.

As a part-time huckster, a quick-witted kid with the kind of darting, side-to-side REM-speed eyes inherent to the tailback position, Clarett is convinced he will make a positive impression here in interviews. He needs to do just that, since he didn't impress teams by choosing not to workout and showing up at a larger-than-expected 237 pounds.

Just 20 years old, and tattooed now with the indelible sign that marks him as the kid who brought down NFL draft rules that a U.S. District Court judge deemed a violation of anti-trust laws, Clarett will have to be steeled for his next test. Only a few weeks ago, Clarett was the challenger, but this week he is going to be mightily challenged.

His rhetorical wares, scouts insisted, had better be good, and Clarett says they will be.

"If people want to get to know the real me, and can put away any of the (misconceptions) I'm sure they have built up, then I'm ready to give them a chance," Clarett told ESPN.com late Monday night in Atlanta, where he spent four hours prepping for the combine interview ordeal. "I don't intend to hold anything back. It's me and them in the room. They ask the questions, I'll answer them, pure and simple. There's nothing to hide."

Truth be told, Clarett would probably prefer to camouflage some of the extra tonnage that he picked up during his season-long suspension from the Buckeyes roster. Ohio State is hardly the first program, of course, to unabashedly embellish the physical measurements of its players. But the year away from the field for Clarett, the result of various and well-documented NCAA and legal offenses, has rendered the Buckeyes media guide a book of bald-faced lies if the banished star is the yardstick.

He is 5-11½, not 6-feet tall, as listed. And the 230 pounds next to Clarett's name on the 2002 roster is now a target weight to which he aspires. The 237 pounds that he checked in at was actually five pounds less than the 242 pounds it was speculated that he weighed earlier in the week when ESPN.com sat down with him. As for his 40-time, well, there will be no hard number affixed to that key measurable in Clarett's brief but critical visit here.

Clarett has more than a month to prepare for his April 2 campus workout, and may need all of that stretch, much of which will likely be spent working with New Orleans-based Tom Shaw, a speed performance expert who has tutored hundreds of draft prospects in the past on how to reduce their stopwatch time.

Obviously there is enough figurative Rust-Oleum in Shaw's facility to knock off most of the imaginary rust Clarett accumulated during a year in which he spent far more time perusing legal tomes than football playbooks. Since the scouts had virtually no reports on him anyway, given that Clarett played only his freshman season before running afoul of the NCAA, it's not as if there will be much to revise.

What the scouts see on videotape, what they witness during his campus audition, is going to pretty much represent the body of work on which Clarett's football skills will be gauged by the NFL bird-dogs. In a lone college season, Clarett rushed for 1,227 yards and scored 18 touchdowns in the Big Ten, but there remain considerable doubts about how his quickness, his durability, his strength and playmaking skills project to the next level.

Contrary to the private beliefs of some Clarett family members, teams will not penalize the young tailback for being the player who broke their system, will not collude to ignore him because he was the one prospect who stood up to the draft rules. Instead, they will embrace him if he proves he can break tackles and make plays. But for now, most clubs see Clarett as an unknown, a possible second-round choice who still must demonstrate he is a viable and worthy candidate for the league.

The early book on Clarett, in discussing him with several veteran scouts, is that too many chapters are yet unwritten. There are, by most scouts' estimations, four or five tailbacks who probably rank ahead of him on early draft boards. Then again, the NFL is a league where tailbacks chosen in the second round and beyond have succeeded wonderfully in the past decade.

Clarett's self-evaluation: "I know the (tailback) position and I feel I've got natural gifts. Do I need to get in better shape? Sure, I do, because I haven't really spent much time on the field lately, now have I? But I'll be ready when it's time to be ready."

For now, however, Clarett has to be ready to run the gauntlet of grueling interviews to which he will be introduced over the next couple days. And ready, as well, for what will inarguably be the most thorough medical examination of his young life.

The bet here is that, while Clarett will be subjected to plenty of poking and pulling as medical staffs from all 32 franchises examine the myriad injuries with which he played in 2002, the more exhaustive probing and prodding will take place in the interview sessions.

Despite the usual rants from league general managers who bemoan the lack of on-field participation at the combine, and there were plenty of them Thursday in Indianapolis when Clarett announced that he wouldn't work out, the session has evolved into a process where the new priorities are these: Get a solid physical exam on every player. Get inside the heads of the prospects on whom your franchise is going to maybe invest millions of dollars.

So while there are scores of scouts desperate to see Clarett back in a football environment, there are even more people here prepared to serve as grand inquisitors to a player who is now the 2004 draft's prime curiosity item and potential collectable.

That is in part why Clarett spent Monday night in Atlanta, working with Ken Herock, the former and longtime NFL personnel chief who now prepares prospects for dealing with the combine interview process. His detractors feel Herock rehearses players, that answers become stock and stilted, but they clearly haven't seen him at work. Herock is pragmatic and practical at the same time, lectures clients that they should expect difficult queries, drumming into them the need to be forthright.

In a session that ran until shortly after midnight Monday, he stressed to Clarett that he had to look scouts in the eyes, and level with them about the incidents that kept him from the playing field in 2003. Most teams, Herock cautioned Clarett, will have performed their due diligence on the player's background. "He basically told me," said Clarett, "that the teams will know more about me than I know about myself, man."

The Herock assessment: "He is street-smart, but I don't mean that in a negative sense, not at all. I think teams will find him to be a pretty articulate kid. The one thing he tends to do is sort of over-explain himself. He doesn't make excuses about what happened, but tries to explain (the rationale) behind it. Basically, I told him to just be straight with people, to tell the truth, and to be himself. My read is that he wants to please people, wants to be a kid who is liked, and who wants to move on and be a good player at the NFL level. But, hey, make no mistake, teams are going to grill him. And they should. That's their job."

While the suspended Ohio State star can be engaging at times, he is just as often guarded, a youngster seemingly steeped in suspicion, not quick to offer up trust and often slow to let down his guard. Over the next few days, though, he will be stripped of pretense and figuratively denuded by scouts armed with verbal backhoes.

In the interviews, Clarett won't have his burgeoning entourage, the clique that includes LeBron James. His legal mouthpiece, attorney Alan Milstein, can't speak on his behalf. That statue of a blindfolded Lady Justice, the one past which Clarett likely walked as he went into various courtrooms, isn't even an afterthought here. The vision of NFL scouts, at least in their owns minds, is always 20/20. Their ears, they all figure, are still sharp enough to discern a pin drop from 50 paces down the hall.

So how the teams perceive Clarett, what they see and hear during the interviews over the next few days, will be critical to his image makeover. The physical stuff comes later. The verbal badinage, the level of comfort with which coaches and personnel directors come away from their sessions with Clarett, is the first determinant, and the youngster knows it.

"They're all getting out their microscopes," Clarett said, "and I'm ready for them."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.