COLUMBUS - Lydell Ross was Ohio State's starting tailback at the start of preseason drills last year.
He eventually lost his job to Maurice Clarett, and what looked to be a promising season for Ross turned into one of frustration.
When Clarett was healthy, Ross rarely made it onto the field.
“I don't let the negativity that everyone thinks has come my way affect me,” Ross said. “I've just tried to hang in there and keep a good attitude, and that's really helped me keep my focus.”
With Clarett on the sideline and still awaiting a decision on his eligibility from the NCAA, Ross' main focus the first week of practice has been on reclaiming the No. 1 tailback spot. He is battling another junior, Maurice Hall, for the top spot, although both have been slowed by injuries.
“Even though Maurice is not here, nothing has changed for me,” said Ross, who started three games last season when Clarett was injured. “I still have the same goal - to be the top running back. I want to be among the top running backs in the nation.”
Ross, 6-foot and 228 pounds, has added 15 pounds of muscle since last year, and it's most noticeable in his thigh area.
“I feel more durable,” said Ross, a cutback runner. “The tackles that brought me down last year won't bring me down this year.”
Hall, who scored the winning touchdowns against Illinois and Michigan last year, also had bulked up. The speedster has added 10 pounds and is listed at 5-10, 200.
“A lot of people think I was really a little guy last year,” he said. “They think because you're little, you're not as tough and physical as people who might be bigger. That's not the thing with me.
“I'm a better player. I'm a little bigger. But I'm still fast. I'm blocking better. I'm reading the holes better.”
Ross and Hall helped pick up the slack last year for the national champion Buckeyes as Clarett missed three full games and parts of two others with knee and shoulder injuries.
Ross, from Gaither High School in Tampa, finished with 619 yards and six touchdowns. Hall, from Columbus Brookhaven, rushed for 370 yards and four scores.
“I think Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall have shown they can do some outstanding things,” coach Jim Tressel said. “I think they've grown a lot and they've demonstrated to me they are very, very good running backs.”
Ross, who missed spring drills with a groin pull, has produced 1,038 yards and 12 touchdowns in his OSU career. Hall has played in 25 of the Buckeyes' 26 games over the last two seasons and has averaged 5.0 yards per carry on 87 attempts.
“Lydell has gotten a lot stronger,” said tight end Ben Hartsock. “And Maurice Hall has put on 10 or 15 pounds of solid muscle. He was one of those guys who was known as a scat back, but a stiff breeze might push him over. He's going to run over some people this year. I think he's going to open some eyes.”
Quarterback Craig Krenzel said he is confident OSU - which opens its season Aug. 30 at home against Washington - can compete for a Big Ten championship and another national title with Ross or Hall in the backfield.
“We won without [Clarett] last year,” Krenzel said. “He didn't start three games, but there also were games where he didn't finish [because of injuries]. We played better than people gave us credit for.”
That's especially true of Ross and Hall.
“We proved last year we could win if it was just me, or if it was just Lydell, or if it was Maurice,” Hall said. “It didn't matter who we had in there in the backfield - we were going to win games.”
As much as Ross would like to be the Buckeyes' featured tailback, he understands that the troubled Clarett is a special talent, and said he would welcome his return once his situation is resolved.
“Sure, I want to see Maurice come back, because he's a part of this team,” Ross said. “The situation we're in, that's what we were dealt. So whatever happens, happens.”
Clarett, a sophomore Heisman Trophy candidate, met with NCAA officials and athletic director Andy Geiger on Monday for three hours. Clarett said afterward that he believes he will be able to start practicing later this week.
However, Krenzel said yesterday he hasn't heard anything definitive.
“If Maurice Clarett can't play for us this year, I have all the faith in the world that either Lydell or Maurice Hall could step in for us and do a good job,” Krenzel said.