Ohio State WR Ray Small finally in fold
Yes, he confirms, he has officially moved out of Ohio State coach Jim Tressel's doghouse.
Based on the past, no one's sure how long it will last.
In his four years returning kicks and catching passes for the seventh-ranked Buckeyes, Small has spent almost as much time on Tressel's bad side as he has in uniform.
Most of the problems between the two are protected by the inner sanctum of Ohio State football, where team matters stay private. But injuries, academic problems, perpetual lateness and a memorable flare-up between Small's family and Tressel have characterized his promising but perpetually rocky college career.
Small even offers himself as an example for younger players NOT to follow.
"Coach Tres taught me a lot in my four years here," the senior speedster from Cleveland said earlier this week as Ohio State prepared to play at Purdue on Saturday. "I've always been a team player. You know me. I always say, 'If I was that bad I wouldn't have been here for four years.' You know what I mean? It's just an example for a lot of the young people to look up to me and be like, 'I'm not going to do this, I know that's not a good example.' But that's just how my four years in college went."
Small is apparently on good terms with the coaching staff, at least for now, and not just because he returned a kickoff 96 yards last week to provide an insurance score in a 31-13 win over previously unbeaten Wisconsin.
In many ways, that return also was a release.
"You could see his face light up," tailback Brandon Saine said. "I don't want to say frustration but (whatever it was) it came out of him. He was a very excited guy. It was fun to see him run down there."
It might take a book to recount the clashes between Tressel and Small.
After a solid freshman season, Small got off to a disappointing start when he injured an ankle before the 2007 season. It dropped him further down the depth chart, though he played well in spot duty. Then, in the spring of 2008, for an undisclosed infraction, Tressel took away Small's preferred uniform No. 4 and gave him No. 82.
One of the problems might have been Small's indifference to time.
"It was like, 'I'm late two minutes to class! Coach, what's the deal? I'm in college!"' Small said, laughing. "But it's not the two minutes, it's the accountability."
A year ago, Small got off to a good start, but before the Buckeyes played Southern California in Game 3 he added some fuel to the fire when he said that USC didn't take football as seriously as Ohio State did. "It's a 'class' thing," he said.
The Trojans humiliated the Buckeyes, 35-3.
The Buckeyes' leading receiver through those three games, he was benched the next week. Six weeks later, Tressel suspended Small for "repeated violations of team rules."
Small's father, Ken, fired back. He said Tressel was "intentionally trying to blow" his son's career. Tressel then got angry with reporters who asked him about the suspension rather than discuss that week's game against Northwestern.
Small didn't catch another pass the rest of the season, although he did return a punt 80 yards to set up a touchdown in Ohio State's lopsided victory over Michigan to end the regular season.
This spring he came back and played well before academic problems caused him to miss fall camp.
Before the season opener against Navy, Tressel was running down the pecking order among the receivers when he stopped, a perplexed look on his face, and said, "Who am I missing?"
Reporters cracked up. He hadn't mentioned Small. Even Tressel smiled at the slip.
Small has been dependable so far this season, topped by his big return on Saturday. Tressel was effusive in his praise.
"What Ray did was great," the coach said. "He was like a bullet coming out of there."
Four years wiser, Small acknowledged that his career has been a series of teaching moments.
"Every year I learn something new," he said. "(Had I learned faster), you would have been seeing a lot more of Ray Small. But this year, I just learned the concept of coach Tres' coaching. We sat down, we talked to each other, and he got my head straight."