Football: Early-entry freshmen adjust to new lifestyles, pressures
Ken Fowler | Friday, April 20, 2007
They’re the newest of the new, Notre Dame’s most valuable unknown commodity, starting college halfway through their senior year of high school and sprinting into the heat of competition.Notre Dame’s second trio of early-entree freshmen – quarterback Jimmy Clausen, running back Armando Allen and cornerback Gary Gray – all came to the Irish in January with high expectations. Clausen was the consensus high school player of the year, finishing his career at Oaks Christian in California 42-0. Allen, a product of Hialeah-Miami Lakes in Florida, is supposed to be the speed threat out of the backfield that Notre Dame has long sought. And Irish coach Charlie Weis said Gray, from Richland Northeast in Columbia, S.C., could become a shut-down cover corner in his collegiate career.For the first two, Saturday’s scrimmage should be a benchmark of their progress as the continue to compete for major playing time – and starting roles each – while Gray remains sidelined with a broken arm.The success of the first few batches of “gray-shirts” – the colloquial term for early-entrants – may affect Weis’ ability to continue the practice and attract top prospects for open slots.A year ago, running back James Aldridge, wide receiver George West and lineman Chris Stewart became the school’s first-ever early-entree trio. But the expectations then were different. Aldridge was coming off a serious knee injury that slowed his progress and kept him out of six of the first seven games of 2006. He amassed 142 rushing yards on the season, but never came close to being the featured back behind former Irish tailback Darius Walker.West played in every game, but saw most of his action on special teams. He touched the ball only three times on offense – though his lone rush on an end-around saw the fleet-footed freshman break the plane on an 11-yard scamper. And Stewart, who entered as a tremendous offensive guard prospect, did not play a single down last season. The 6-foot-5, 340-pound lineman from Spring, Texas, will have completed the equivalent of nearly two academic years of classes by the time he first lines up for his first snap – and he’ll likely be on the defensive side of the neutral zone as a nose tackle when he does. But this year’s group is different.Every college football fan knew Clausen was going to compete immediately for Notre Dame’s starting quarterback job – the most closely watched and highly scrutinized position in the sport.And yet, despite a sore arm – revealed to the press by Allen in an interview with a Miami newspaper – all signs are positive for Clausen.Of course, there are struggles.”It’s tough coming in and being a freshman,” Sharpley said of Clausen. “I think we’ve all kind of been there for each other, and it’s a learning process. Especially being young, being away from home, it’s tough. I think we’re kind of all there for each other.”And the problems Clausen has faced were not limited to the young freshman. Fifth-year senior Travis Thomas said he tormented all four candidates for the starting gig – Clausen, rising junior Evan Sharpley and sophomores Demetrius Jones and Zach Frazer – about their cadences at the line of scrimmage.In the quarterback race, Clausen came in with the disadvantage of no experience in the system. But the race itself has given him the distinct advantage of knowing he could be on the field as soon as Notre Dame and Georgia Tech kick off at 3:42 p.m. on Sept. 1.And Clausen could be handing off to Allen on that day. Though Thomas, with four years of experience and a proven ability to create plays, is the favorite for the starting job, the senior said the competition between he, Aldridge and Allen has been anything but easy.”I can say he’s not running like a freshman; he’s running like he belongs here and like he’s been here before,” Thomas said of Allen, who is listed as 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds. “He’s tough for his size. I don’t know what size he is – maybe 5-9, 5-10, the most – and he runs real hard. Good vision, great speed, good hands. … He’s progressing real well.”While Allen progresses on the field, the final member of the trio, Gray, has to take his strides forward on the sidelines.”The thing that an injured player, any injured player, has to do is they’ve got to be a good classroom student,” Irish defensive backs coach Bill Lewis said. “Any time a player’s injured, I try to impress upon him how important his classroom meetings are.”Lewis said his hope is that Gray latches on to a veteran, who can be a “positive role model.””In the case of Gary, what Gary needs to do is he needs to hang on somebody, he needs to hang his hat on somebody.”[But] that doesn’t automatically happen”Even more than that, though, Lewis said an injured young player like Gray must go through “mental repetitions” – thinking through what the person in his position must do on each play, studying both the defensive calls and the offensive formations.Gray’s test of how he has progressed will come in August when the Irish start fall camp. But for Clausen and Allen, Saturday marks their time to show what they can do.