Hayes' Take: Jimmy Clausen
I've been thinking a lot about Jimmy Clausen and how his season seemed to take a u-turn. It got me thinking: Would Notre Dame and Clausen have been better served had Evan Sharpley been the quarterback the past two seasons?
The way the quarterback situation played out last season was bizarre. We don't know what happens behind those tarped fences during practice. (In fact, I've never even bothered to attend the 20-minute session that coach Charlie Weis allows the media to watch for one simple reason. In 20 years of covering football I've yet to learn anything meaningful from watching players stretch and do individual drills. Plus, I wouldn't put it past Weis to stage something just for the media. I've heard he's done it in the past.) Weis claims Clausen, despite coming off a surgical procedure on his elbow and despite being a true freshman, was the superior practice player last season and therefore he was made the starter. That may well be. But there's also no doubt that Sharpley out-played Clausen in several games in 2007 and as a junior seemed the most logical candidate to start. There's also no doubt that many Notre Dame players --- especially upperclassmen --- thought Sharpley should have been the starter. There's also no denying that there were potential political benefits to starting Clausen as a true freshman. How could you blame Weis for the offense floundering when he was starting a true freshman at quarterback? How could you not be patient?
Getting Clausen experience under center will only hasten his development. That was one argument for throwing caution into the wind and throwing Clausen into the mix heading into Penn State last season --- but has it? Two years into Clausen's Notre Dame career, it seems reasonable to ponder whether or not that experience has paid off.
Of course, we wouldn't be having this discussion if Clausen hadn't regressed during the second half of the season. There are reasons for that that have nothing to do with the strong-armed quarterback from Southern California. The single biggest factor in an offense being consistent is a running game and the absence of same at Notre Dame is one of the most puzzling aspects ---- and biggest indictments --- of Weis' regime.
Let's say it like it is: The offensive line has been a crushing disappointment the past two years. Clausen didn't have a chance last season. Opposing defenses abused him like a crash-test dummy. This year, the inability to open holes or get any kind of consistent push even against several out-manned opponents was simply inexcusable.
That said, Clausen has now made 21 starts as a college quarterback. That's a big enough sample size to begin drawing some conclusions and expressing some concerns.
WHAT I KNOW ABOUT JIMMY CLAUSEN: The kid's arm is everything it was billed to be coming out of high school. People say the ball sounds different off Tiger Wood's club. I'm not comparing Clausen to Woods --- not by a long shot --- but the ball looks different coming out of his hand. Three or four times a game --- at least --- he makes a throw that makes me say, "Wow." Not only that, but he can make virtually every throw, including the tough deep outs that even the Bears' Kyle Orton struggles to complete with consistency. He's more accurate than the vast majority of college quarterbacks --- another plus. Remember the end of the Syracuse game? He threw three straight virtual Hail Marys deep downfield and all three were absolutely on the money. How many college quarterbacks throw the deep ball that well? He manages the team well. That he can run the no-huddle so effectively is a huge plus at this stage of his career. If it weren't for the no-huddle, what would the Irish offense have done well this season? In a lot of ways, Clausen is everything he was billed to be coming out of Oaks Christian. In other ways, huge questions remain ...
WHAT I DON'T KNOW ABOUT JIMMY CLAUSEN: There's a certain something, a sometimes undefinable intangible that separates great quarterbacks from ordinary ones. I'm starting to wonder whether Clausen has that quality. Is he a leader? Do his teammates respect him? I don't want to be too tough on the kid, especially when there's plenty of time left in his career to prove that he has the qualities that I'm questioning. But sometimes you see things that make you wonder. I covered Jeff George when he was with the Raiders. The guy was a Hall of Famer in a seven-on-seven drill. I've never seen anybody throw the ball like him. In games, however, he was often ineffective because he lacked many of the intangibles I'm talking about. He seemed disconnect from his team and his teammates. Emotionally, it seemed as if there was nothing there. The one place where Notre Dame players are over-coached is in the media room. This is a topic for another day. But trust me when I say these kids just repeat what Weis tells them to say. As a result, they don't say anything, their personalities don't shine through. Clausen is among the worst. If I had a nickel for every time he said "you just have to go to practice and try to improve each and every day ...." I would retire. I might retire anyway if I have to sit through another one of his press conferences. Maybe he's just saying what Weis wants him to say. Maybe it's just his personality. At some point, however, it would be nice to see some fire. It would be nice to see the quarterback --- and team captain --- say that they didn't play well enough even after a win. Weis talks much about the great leadership on the team but fans and media have a hard time seeing it. Many of the strongest leaders --- Dave Bruton, Maurice Crum, etc. --- will be gone next season, which could create a leadership void. That will make Clausen's role even more critical. Is he up to it? The question lingers ...
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