Mysterious rookie Maurice Clarett walked into his boss's office last week looking for a promotion. Clarett, the dishonored former Ohio State running back who resurfaced as a late third-round Broncos draft pick, told coach Mike Shanahan he wanted a chance to play with the big boys, not the third-unit scrubeenies he was bunched with. Shanahan resisted the urge to remind Clarett that it was only the first week of training camp and the players in front of him-- Tatum Bell, Quentin Griffin, Mike Anderson and Ron Dayne--had 13 NFL seasons and 55 starts combined. Instead, Shanahan told Clarett the tale of Terrell Davis.
"Terrell didn't carry the ball in the  preseason till the last week," Shanahan told Clarett, of the back who had three seasons with at least 1,500 rushing yards. "But twice in that preseason he was our special teams player of the week. You've got to take advantage of any opportunity you get to make a play. And always remember you might be one play away from being the guy."
Clarett meant no disrespect by going to Shanahan, though one might interpret his request as an extension of his prima donna act in college. After a spectacular freshman season, Clarett lost his eligibility for various NCAA rule violations and lost his lawsuit in a bid to enter the NFL draft a year early. Now Clarett's in a position in which he should be seen and not heard. He can't be sending up red flags that raise new questions about his maturity.
"I'm not getting as many reps as I want to," Clarett said last Thursday, explaining why he sought out Shanahan. "Sometimes I get frustrated."
Shanahan has a history of turning middle- and low-round picks ( Davis, Olandis Gary, Anderson, recently dealt Reuben Droughns) into 1,000-yard rushers, and he has seen things he likes from the 234-pound Clarett. "He has the lateral quickness you don't see in many big backs," Shanahan said last week. "But as many camps as I've been to, I can't tell how it's going to turn out. Some guys get their chance the first year, some guys the third or fourth year. How tough are you mentally? Can you withstand the adversity when you're used to being the guy? Can you pick up blitzes? Can you play special teams at a high level?"
After two years off from taking hits on the field, Clarett says he has been plagued by muscle soreness and a tweaked groin and still has to adjust to the pro game. "I'm so anxious to prove I can still play," he says. "When I see myself on film, I don't see the same guy I remember from college. It's like I don't really get what's going on. I know it's just learning the offense and getting used to the speed of the game."
One of Clarett's new mentors on the team is listed right above Clarett's number 20 on the Broncos' roster-- Jerry Rice, who is wearing number 19 in his first year with Denver. "I'm learning a lot from watching Jerry," says Clarett, 21. "He's so impressive. Some days he's only practicing once a day, and I saw him begging the coaches to be let in [for the second one]. That's amazing to see. Wow. Jerry Rice."
Rice smiled when he was asked about Clarett. "I've spent time with Maurice, and I can tell he's a good kid," Rice says. "What he sees is what every kid coming to the NFL sees early on: The game is so much faster."
And Clarett wants so badly to catch up.