DENVER (April 23, 2005) -- The Denver Broncos have a history of taking less-than-perfect tailbacks and turning them into stars. On Day 1 of the 2005 NFL Draft, they selected the walking definition of the less-than-perfect tailback -- Maurice Clarett.
Impressed by what he did as a freshman, and not as concerned with his sordid history since, the Broncos took the bait on Clarett, using a third-round pick to take a surprising gamble on one of the most divisive players in the history of college football.
"It's funny to finally get to this point," Clarett said.
The one-time Ohio State star led the Buckeyes to the 2002 national title, scoring the winning touchdown as a freshman in the Fiesta Bowl.
But his fortunes turned downward from there.
He got in trouble with the law, got suspended for the 2003 season, sued to become eligible for the draft and eventually lost that case. Then, he turned on Ohio State, alleging coach Jim Tressel arranged for him to get passing grades, cars and money for bogus summer jobs. The football program is under investigation but has not been hit with NCAA sanctions.
Despite the problems, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan deemed drafting Clarett as a risk worth taking.
"First of all, I think you don't get too caught up in that," Shanahan said. "I know the situation, what's happened. His slate is clean and we're giving him an opportunity."
After sitting out two seasons, Clarett was a bust during NFL tryouts. He was unable to break 4.7 seconds in his 40-yard run at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, making his already cloudy draft future that much murkier.
Based on the speed, and the history, very few thought he was worth much higher than a fifth-round pick. Some thought he wouldn't be drafted at all. Clarett, meanwhile, conceded he was getting in the car as the Broncos were preparing to make the 101st and last pick of the first day.
Then, came the first real surprise of a relatively calm 2005 draft -- a pick Shanahan made on the recommendation from running backs coach Bobby Turner, who stayed in touch with Clarett during his two years of inactivity.
"I think it's a clean slate," Clarett said. "Coach Turner knew me, went to bat for me. He told Coach Shanahan he would take a bet on me."
Denver has no pressing needs at tailback. They have Tatum Bell, Mike Anderson and Quentin Griffin and signed Ron Dayne during free agency.
They have a history, though, of taking mid-round picks and turning them into 1,000-yard rushers. Anderson, Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns and Terrell Davis all fit that bill. Davis was a sixth-round pick. He retired with 7,607 yards over eight seasons.
"Terrell Davis wasn't, so called, very fast," Shanahan said. "But he played very fast in games and had great cutting ability. So, speed isn't always a factor. He's got great elusiveness, the ability to make some big runs. Sometimes speed can be overrated."
Clarett rushed for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns as a freshman at Ohio State despite missing three games with injuries. After that year, he was considered one of the best college players in the game, but couldn't be drafted because of NFL rules stating players must be out of high school three years before going pro.
He challenged that rule in court and won, only to see the decision overturned by a higher court, leaving him with nowhere to play. During his time away, he gained weight and took on more baggage by turning on Tressel. By the time draft day approached, Clarett was being roundly ripped by many of the so-called personnel experts.
"I'm in great shape right now," Clarett claimed. "I've been working out every day. I talked to Coach Turner and said, `If you need me to lose more weight, I'll lose more weight. If you need me to run more, I'll run more.' Whatever they ask of me, whatever I need to do, is what's going to happen."
The Clarett pick immediately transformed Denver's draft from one of the league's most placid into one of the most intriguing. The Broncos had traded away their first-round draft pick, and used their second and two thirds on cornerbacks -- Darrent Williams of Oklahoma State, Karl Paymah of Washington State and Domonique Foxworth of Maryland.
Then came Clarett -- chosen with one of two picks the Broncos received from the league as compensation for lost free agents in years past.
"And you thought it was going to be a slow, slow third round," Shanahan said.