INDIANAPOLIS -- Each of the 333 potential NFL players invited to the combine arrived in Indianapolis this week with something to prove. In the high stakes, and maybe more importantly, big money world of the NFL Draft, teams leave no stone unturned in researching potential picks.
But for former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett (6-0, 230) and former USC wide receiver Mike Williams (6-4,225) the questions go well beyond the ordinary. Both players tried to enter the draft a year ago after a legal challenge of league rules pertaining to draft eligibility, although Clarett was the leader of the challenge with Williams simply riding his coat-tails into the selection process. An appeals court reversal of a previous ruling against the league kept both players from last year's draft and subsequently neither was able to play football last fall either.
So both Clarett, who has actually missed the last two football seasons due to his various off-field and court battles, and Williams are in Indy for the second straight year working not only to prove their talents and measurables, but also to prove that extended time away from the game hasn't left them with irreparable rust.
"Number one, they [both] probably have to show people that they have been working and are in shape and work out decently to prove that," said Bills general manager Tom Donahoe, a guy who was critical of Clarett's appearance at the combine a year ago. "They haven't played football for a year and that is certainly not a positive. We can't determine football ability, but we can certainly determine here what kind of shape that they are in and their athletic ability. It's important for the players based on what happened last year."
Maintaining the star power that came with leading Ohio State to the national championship in his freshman (and only) season at the school, Clarett's Thursday afternoon press conference in the media room at the convention center connected to the RCA Dome brought about plenty of questions from the national media contingent in attendance. But Clarett, who has been working hard to prepare both physically and mentally for the events of the combine, seemed more than ready for the onslaught of questions, something he will also face in interviews with many of the teams that still have interest in the back who rushed for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns in his only collegiate season.
"It's been disappointing to me personally not being able to play," said the confident Clarett. "I've just been focused on training, staying in the weight room and doing what I have to do to progress this next season.
"This is a big day I've been preparing for for a long time. This day has been on my calendar for a long time, coming here interviewing [with] everybody, kind of knocking off the kinks everybody had on me and the knocks everybody had on me. I've been real focused and ready for this day to come."
But even the player himself admits all the lifting and drills he's been doing can't simulate playing in games, something the other running back prospects in the draft having been doing while Clarett watched helplessly.
Clarett weighed in at what he describes as a leaner 234 pounds than he carried in the past, saying that he has "never been in better shape." But maybe, more importantly, the former collegiate one-year wonder claims to be a much more mature person thanks to his off the field trials of the past two years.
"I had to take a look at myself from outside myself," said Clarett of the changes he's undergone in the last year while crediting much of the alteration to the guidance of his lawyer, David Kenner. "When I looked at myself sometimes I kind of looked like a joke to myself. I guess it was a part of growing up and becoming who I am today. I just looked at it like one of you might look at me and be like, 'He wasn't mature.' I did do some things I shouldn't have done. I've taken responsibility for all those things and I'm just ready to move forward."
That change is something Clarett hopes to impress upon NFL decision makers over the next few days, something that will greatly influence when and where he steps on the football field next fall.
"I've got a lot greater work ethic than I had last year," Clarett said. "I think my drive is a whole lot more determined than I was last year. I just want to work, I don't care if it's special teams, anything, just get me on the field, I want to play with anybody."
And in the end what's the biggest change Clarett feels he has undergone?
"Probably humility," Clarett said. "Being humble. I don't want to say I was humble in the past all the time, I might have said some things to the media I shouldn't have said and things like that. [Kenner] taught me to be humble. It's a humbling thing being humble."
For Williams, who is expected to address the media during the second day of the combine on Friday, the questions revolve mainly around his physical conditioning and skills following the year off. If the player who caught 176 passes and 30 touchdowns in two seasons at USC can show he's in as good a physical shape or better than he was at this time a year ago, he will likely re-claim his spot as a potential high first round pick. Any evidence of rust though, and his stock will fall.
One thing that helps Williams in terms of off-field questions is that unlike Clarett, the former USC star's situation wasn't totally of his own doing and his character was never an issue. After taking the opening Clarett created through his own court battles, declaring for the 2004 draft and hiring an agent, the eventual appellate decision left Williams with nowhere to turn or play other than simply waiting the year out before joining the 2005 draft class.
"I probably felt more bad for him than myself," Clarett admitted on Thursday. "It was like I started it and he kind of got caught into my web."
Fair or not, it's a web both players are working to fight their way out of on their way to the NFL.
It's a fight that is likely greater for Clarett. Even after a solid combine workout, health check and interview process, Clarett's draft status could remain a big mystery until his name is called on April 23 or 24. The Patriots are one of the many teams that showed interest in the back when he was expected to be available last spring and should he slip for example to where New England picks with the final selection in the second or third round, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility to see the former Buckeye joining the defending Super Bowl champs.
For now, though, their draft positioning remains up in the air even more than for the average prospect. But even the guys running alongside Clarett in Indy know that sooner or later the back will find an NFL home.
"Regardless of what he's been through, somebody's going to like him; somebody's going to love him; somebody's going to pick him up," said Texas running back Cedric Benson, a guy some believe could be the draft's top overall pick.
One thing that is for sure is that over the next few days Clarett and Williams will be taking tests and answering questions that will decide not only when they hear their names called in April, but how the next stage of their athletic lives plays out. For the first time in the last year, that puts them right where they have wanted to be all along, alongside the best college football players in the country working to take their games to the next level.
"The fact of the matter is you step on that field, it doesn't matter where you were drafted; you can be Tom Brady for example, Priest Holmes, Kurt Warner, you can go on and on," Clarett said. "It doesn't matter where you were drafted. That matters financially. But when it comes down to playing on that field, you can ask anybody I've ever played against, I don't joke around. I handle my business."
And that is something both Clarett and Williams are finally getting a chance to do this week in Indy.