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Published: Friday, 10/18/2002

Ohio St. missed chance to be frosh fantastic

The only thing wrong with Ohio State coach Jim Tressel not signing quarterback Brad Smith a year ago is that Tressel missed the opportunity to play two of the best freshmen in the country in the same backfield.

If Smith is under center and handing the ball to Maurice Clarett, the undefeated Buckeyes go into tomorrow's game at Wisconsin as heavy favorites instead of carrying a question mark at quarterback.

Two months into this season, it has become clear not only that Clarett is Ohio State's go-to player, but that he has lifted the players around him.

Clarett leads the Buckeyes in rushing yards and scoring, but his gaudy statistics aren't as important as the confidence Clarett gives the Buckeyes.

Clarett has made Ohio State's defense better because he controls the ball on offense.

He's made the Buckeyes linemen better because they don't have to hold their blocks as long to free him.

And he's made Craig Krenzel a better quarterback because opposing defenses are focused on stopping Clarett.

From now on, Ohio State fans will have to hear about the possibility of Clarett challenging the NFL rule preventing underclassmen from entering the draft. Clarett told ESPN The Magazine he's thought about leaving school early.

It's official, Ohio State fans. When your freshman running back goes for 847 yards and 13 touchdowns in his first six games, that is saying something. When he's already talking about going to the pros, that means his days in Columbus are numbered.

Clarett is Ohio State's best player at one of its deepest positions. Behind Clarett is Lydell Ross, who's talented enough to start. The Buckeyes are loaded at running back.

The same can't be said for Ohio State quarterbacks.

Krenzel replaced Steve Bellisari, who also plays in the NFL ... as a safety. Krenzel doesn't make plays as much as he doesn't make mistakes. He's a safe choice, the only legitimate choice to start this year.

True freshman Justin Zwick, the highly touted QB from Massillon, wasn't ready to start.

If Ohio State stockpiled talented quarterbacks the same way it does running backs, the outstanding freshman at the University of Missouri would probably be a Buckeye, along with Zwick.

Imagine the possibilities. Playing Clarett and Smith in the same backfield would be unfair to other teams.

Smith, who starred at Chaney High School in Youngstown when Tressel was still coaching at Division I-AA Youngstown State, ranks sixth nationally in total offense, averaging 302.8 yards a game.

Tressel recruited Smith to play quarterback at Youngstown State. When Tressel was hired at Ohio State, he recruited Smith as an athlete with no promise of playing quarterback for the Buckeyes, according to Chaney coach Ron Berdis. Smith followed coach Gary Pinkel to Missouri, where he was redshirted last year.

Smith's another talented in-state football player who got away from Ohio State. So much for the bad news.

The good news is, even if Zwick turns out to be half as good as Smith, that's still pretty good.



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