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Tough enough to handle

Pat Leonard | Sunday, December 11, 2005

Robin Quinn knows Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis places heavy responsibilities on his quarterbacks, so she figured her son Brady would have welcomed the two years to prepare for such a disciplined and demanding offense.

“I said, ‘Aren’t you glad you got Coach Weis your junior year?'” Quinn’s mother recalled asking her son. “Because I was thinking to myself had he been a freshman, just 18, getting the starting position, that would have been overwhelming for him.

“[Brady] goes, ‘No, that probably would have been easy as a freshman because that’s all you know.'”

The junior quarterback’s comment could make Irish fans daydream about what could have been, or it could explain why Weis’ offense developed so quickly and efficiently in less than a year with 18- to 21-year old college kids.

At this time last season, Quinn (6-foot-4, 231 pounds) was not thinking Heisman. And he no longer is this year, or so he says. But following a career season in which he set numerous Irish program records, the confident junior quarterback has gained national attention for being the arm of Notre Dame’s resurgence to a BCS bowl.

First-year coach Weis has been the face.

Weis brought an offense that already had credibility from his three Super Bowl wins with the New England Patriots. But for many doubters, Quinn has proven the offense can work at more than one level of football, and that he has everything to do with why it does.

He garnered seven first-place votes in Saturday’s Heisman Trophy balloting after throwing for 3,633 yards and 32 touchdowns and shattering almost every Notre Dame passing record in 2005.

Former Irish coach Lou Holtz said Quinn “never flinched” in his game-winning drive at Stanford Nov. 26 in a 38-31 win.

“[It was] just ho-hum, another day at work,” Holtz said prior to the Notre Dame football banquet on Dec. 2.

And though Quinn did not even receive an invitation to the Heisman ceremony in New York City, his name’s appearance on the ballot made the statement – while Weis has been the mastermind behind the success, Quinn has been its catalyst.

“I think that the success of our offense can definitely be pinpointed to the progress of Brady,” Weis said.

Quinn’s path to prominence has been rocky at times, but always deliberate.

The big boys

The Dublin, Ohio native has been able to deal with adversity at Notre Dame because he experienced similar athletic obstacles at a young age.

When Quinn’s Dublin Football League (DFL) travel team played Gehanna in sixth grade, the opposition included some seventh-, eighth- and even ninth-graders – players who were more physically developed.

“Brady was always a good-sized kid for his age, but not like these kids,” his mother said. “One kid was probably 6-feet tall, 200 pounds.”

Quinn took a vicious hit that sent him off to the sidelines. His uncle David, a coach at the time, made a comment that stuck with Quinn’s mother as one of the most significant developments in her son’s athletic career.

“He said, ‘Brady, look. This is totally your decision, but there comes a point in your life when you play sports where there’s a difference between playing injured and playing hurt,'” his mother said. “‘If you’re hurt or your pride’s hurt, and you think you can get back out there, do it. But if you feel like you’ve really got an injury, you should sit down.'”

Quinn shook his head, shook off the hit and finished the game.

Fast forward to 2003, his first start as a college quarterback on the road at Purdue – 59 passing attempts, four interceptions, only one touchdown, one sack and a slew of hurries, knockdowns and hits.

The raw talent showed, but the beating was brutal.

“I don’t like to hear that word [Purdue], every time I think of that as a mom,” his mother said.

Quinn would have to live by his uncle’s words for a while. The losses hurt.

Quinn’s statistics improved as he gained more game experience, but he won just nine of 21 games as a starter in his first two years under former coach Tyrone Willingham. Though his numbers were improving, through his sophomore season, the team was not.

Coming from a competitive and athletic family – Brady played baseball, basketball and football into high school at Dublin-Coffman; his father Ty played baseball and wrestled; his younger sister Kelly plays soccer at Virginia; his older sister Laura played field hockey and softball and even modeled – Quinn always has been a perfectionist.

“When we were younger and we had catches, he would throw it – and obviously he has a really hard throw – and I could never catch it,” Kelly Quinn said. “He’d get so frustrated at me and say, ‘Catch the ball, Kelly.'”

Notre Dame’s 31-point losses to archrivals, then, did not sit well with a kid who had the most organized desk in his first grade class.

“He was always a very intense child … always a perfectionist – in any sports he did, with his room, with his outfits,” his mother said. “Maybe he role-modeled me a little bit.”

And every perfectionist desires complete control over assigned tasks. Enter Charlie Weis, and a system that gave Quinn the freedom he wanted, the discipline he needed and his first close look (9-2; last-second loss to undefeated USC) at what perfection in college football means.

Grown up

Quinn controls most of Notre Dame’s offense at the line of scrimmage – at least he has the freedom to. Weis has mandates like any coach, but his major demand calls for someone not wearing a headset on the sidelines, Quinn, to take control.

“The quarterback has to be an extension of [Weis] out there on the field, and while it’s tough, I’ve got to be somewhat of an extension of what he wants in terms of leadership and making decisions as the quarterback,” Quinn said.

His maturity and confidence have contributed to nothing short of a Notre Dame offensive revival.

In 2004, the Irish averaged 218 yards per game passing. Quinn had 17 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, and the offensive line gave up 25 sacks. Now, as the 2005 season concludes, Notre Dame averages 334 yards passing and has given up only 16 sacks. Quinn’s 32 touchdowns-to-seven interceptions ratio already has helped him capture the Sammy Baugh Award – presented to college football’s top passer by The Touchdown Club of Columbus, Ohio – and be nominated for a host of others.

“He’s more vocal in the huddle, taking charge and being more aggressive,” said wide receiver Maurice Stovall, who has caught 60 passes and 11 touchdowns from Quinn this season. “His mental aspect of the game as far as watching film and reading defensive coverages [has improved, also].”

Quinn’s statistics have accumulated, the quarterback said, in part because Weis has taught him a lot about erasing short-term memory and not dwelling on mistakes. And Quinn has been able to receive that advice and apply it – no matter how harshly the coach instructs at times – because of his mature attitude.

“I think that Brady was mature enough to realize regardless of the personality or if there had ever been a personality conflict – which it sounds like [Brady and Weis] get along perfectly fine – that Brady knew he was going to respect and appreciate what Coach Weis had to add and bring to the table,” his mother said.

Quinn has endless and acute observations about how he has learned from Weis beginning in spring practice and continuing into his BCS bowl preparation.

“[This offense] places a lot of responsibility on the quarterback, and it deals with a lot more mental things coming up to the line of scrimmage and playing in the game,” Quinn said. “I learned that there was a lot more to playing quarterback in different systems and in our particular offense than I had realized before.”

But while Weis believes quarterback recruits should be lining up for the chance to play for an NFL offensive mind like his, he understands Quinn’s value as more than just a good listener.

In the case of Quinn’s development, it’s not only what the offense has done for him, Weis consistently says. Notre Dame’s success is just as much about what Quinn does for the offense.

Whether or not the Heisman Trophy voters recognize Quinn as being worthy of a New York City visit, the junior knows his place – short of the ultimate goal.

“Everyone who is there [for the Heisman announcement] is undefeated and playing in the national championship,” Quinn said. “So it’s hard to argue that you should be there when you’re 9-2 and playing in the Fiesta Bowl, instead of the Rose Bowl.”

Even Weis, who coaches with a demeanor of rationality and tough love, had problems with Quinn not receiving the invite. But his quarterback has come even further, to the point at which he is so realistic and poised and prepared for decisions thrown his way – and about recognizing the improvements still required of him – that he can handle anything.

And if that doesn’t work, he can always audible.