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Football Fantastic Four

Chris Khorey | Friday, April 20, 2007

Brady has left the building.

A year ago at this time, Brady Quinn was the center of attention. After each spring practice, the face of Notre Dame football who carried the team on his right arm, would enter the press room at the Guglielmino Athletic Center and immediately be surrounded by a gaggle reporters, sometimes three and four deep on every side. People wanted every last sound-bite from the Heisman candidate, Notre Dame’s most recent Golden Boy.

But today things are different. Quinn, holder of dozens of school records, is going through a different media circus, this time his pre-draft, talk-show circuit rounds. He even sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley Field Monday.

Back in South Bend, things have changed even more. Four quarterbacks – rising junior Evan Sharpley, rising sophomores Demetrius Jones and Zach Frazer, and early-entry freshman Jimmy Clausen – have splintered the media horde that used to follow Quinn wherever he went. In fact, when they walk into the press room after practice, some reporters hang back awkwardly, unsure of which quarterback is which.

There are no school records among the four. As a group, they amassed only seven collegiate passing yards, all of them by Sharpley. Most Irish fans – and even many of their fellow students – know them only by their jersey numbers and perhaps the number of stars next to their names on various recruiting websites.

Irish coach Charlie Weis has said that he will narrow the race from four to two based on spring practice – a decision he will announce at the end of May. Until then, however, each of the four divergent personalities is convinced that he will be Notre Dame’s next “cult hero,” as Weis used to call Quinn.

So who are these masked men?

The Hollywood Superstar

Clausen is the most recognizable face among the four competitors.

The 6-foot-5, 207-pounder out of Westlake Village, Calif., was the top-rated quarterback nationally in last year’s recruiting class. He committed to the Irish the morning of last year’s Blue-Gold Game at the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown South Bend.

The announcement ceremony, which included Clausen pulling up in a Hummer limousine, was witnessed by most of the media assembled for the scrimmage later that day.

But the excitement around Clausen wasn’t just because of his elaborate ceremony. The younger brother of former Tennessee quarterbacks Casey and Rick Clausen, Jimmy started all four years at Oaks Christian High School, going 42-0. He threw for more than 10,000 yards and 146 touchdowns in that span.

All the success strained his arm once he arrived at Notre Dame in January as an early enrollee. Weis told Clausen to rest his arm in preparation for spring practice and the freshman was ready to go when camp opened March 21.

The coach also tried to make the Clausen’s life easier by sequestering him from publicity all spring. Weis has a policy of restricting media access to freshman, and in that sense Clausen was no exception.

The Life of the Party

Jones sees being a quarterback as more than just an on-field role – he also says the quarterback should be an off-field resource for his teammates.

“As a quarterback it’s important to find out what’s going on with everybody,” he said. “Everybody has social problems and family problems. I try to be a people person.”

Whether it’s celebrating a sunny day with his bright red “summer shoes” or hinting about the “G-Code” that he and his friends in his native Chicago use, Jones loves to goof around. He says his sense of humor and outgoing personality helps him be a leader on the team.

“The same guys you slap on the back of the head before class are the guys blocking for you,” he said. “The same people you tease are the ones catching passes for you.”

But it hasn’t been all fun and games for Jones this spring. In addition to the nerve-racking competition for starting quarterback, he also has to worry about his grandmother, Gloria Pierce, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Jones said his faith has helped him get through the tough times.

“I’m a pretty Biblical person and I believe everything happens for a reason,” he said.

Pierce recently moved from her home in Selma, Ala., to Indianapolis to seek better care, which means he can visit her more often. He’s planning on seeing her soon after the Blue-Gold Game.

But Jones said her health problems won’t affect him on the field – Pierce wouldn’t allow it.

“She says not to worry about her, because this is one of my dreams,” he said. “She would be mad if worrying about her made me do worse on the field.”

Jones is perhaps the most versatile of the four quarterbacks, leading to some speculation outside of the team that he might switch positions if he doesn’t earn the starting job.

Jones rejects these ideas – but he’s also confident that that question will never need to be asked.

“I didn’t come here to be a back up and I didn’t come here to be anyone’s sidekick,” he said.

The Cannon-Armed Prototype

If the quarterback race was based solely on who looks like the most like Quinn when in uniform, Frazer would win hands down.

At 6-foot-4, 226 pounds, he is the largest of the four competing quarterbacks, and comes closest to Quinn, who was 6-foot-4, 232 pounds.

“Being able to see the field is my strength, along with my arm,” he said.

Frazer’s teammates agree on his arm strength

“Zach has a strong arm,” rising junior wide receiver David Grimes said. “I think he can probably throw the ball 70 or 80 yards.”

After red-shirting last fall, Frazer said he couldn’t wait for spring practice and the competition with the other quarterbacks to begin.

“I was counting down the days from 100 days before spring,” he said.

Frazer said the experience he gained this past season on the sidelines watching Quinn prepared him well for the competition this spring.

“I was little nervous on the first day of practice, but after that I felt very confident moving in there and moving the ball,” he said.

That confidence extends to more than just the playbook. Frazer said playing in front of tens of thousands of people for the first time Saturday won’t rattle him at all.

“You have to go out and have a good time,” he said. “You can’t hype it too much or you’ll get nervous.”

And Frazer has no reason to be nervous, because, according to him, he’s already the best option at quarterback.

“In my eyes, I’m number one,” he said.

The Elder Statesman

Sharpley is the only one of the four quarterbacks who was enrolled at Notre Dame during the 2005 football season.

He is also the only one that has appeared in a regulation college game – and the only one that has completed a pass.

And the 6-foot-4, 212 pound rising junior out of Marshall, Mich., says that gives him an advantage.

“I was able to sit back and kind of be a sponge and learn from Coach Weis and Brady – whoever was there. … It was good for me,” he said. “You learn a lot of nuances, a lot of little things that are helpful in picking up the playbook.”

Of course, with that experience comes the responsibility of being a leader to younger players – even those that Sharpley is competing with for playing time.

“It’s difficult in that respect because we’re all going after the same position, and you’d like to help as much as you can, but you also have to realize it’s someone you’re competing against,” he said. “We have a great relation off the field as well as on, and it’s just kind of, I guess almost a mutual fondness for each other where we’re out there trying to help each other compete.”

In between spring workouts, quarterback meetings and going to class, Sharpley is also a first baseman the Irish baseball team. He has appeared in 11 games this year, driving in two runs on his lone hit.

Weis said he’s grateful that Sharpley has decided to make football his top priority.

“Evan’s been here for all the football practices,” he said. “He’s putting a heavy emphasis on football.”

Sharpley said he would like to emulate the two-sport career of former Notre Dame wide receiver/pitcher Jeff Samardzija, but that being a position player in baseball makes his task more difficult than Samardzija’s, who only had to pitch in one game per week.

“His situation was a lot different than mine, him being a pitcher and then obviously already establishing himself in both sports so he had a little leeway there with time constraints where he could do a little bit more,” Sharpley said.

So while his baseball career might be on hold right now, Sharpley said it is for the best.

“In my situation right now, I need to be here at football trying to establish myself,” he said.

What’s next?

Notre Dame has had mixed success replacing highly successful quarterbacks in the past.

After Joe Montana graduated in 1979, the Irish used several quarterbacks, all with limited success, and finished just 7-4.

On the other hand, in 1969, Terry Hanratty, who led Notre Dame to the 1966 national championship, gave way seamlessly to Joe Theismann, who would set one of the few school records Quinn never broke with his 526 passing yards against USC in 1970.

In 1997, then-coach Bob Davie attempted to ease the transition between then-senior Ron Powlus (now the Irish quarterbacks coach) and then-junior Jarious Jackson by having Jackson play at various times during games. Davie took heat when the offense sputtered, but Jackson stepped smoothly into the starter role the next year.

Weis never gave that method a thought. With Quinn playing well and expectations through the roof, there was little opportunity to get meaningful snaps for a back-up.

Instead, Weis used this spring to judge which quarterback will fill Quinn’s enormous shoes.

For other players on the roster, the transition from one experienced leader under center to four young players still learning the playbook has not been easy, but veterans like fifth-year senior tight end John Carlson say they are making the best of the situation.

“There are four guys that we are developing chemistry with,” he said. “They all got a lot better this spring.”

Weis will narrow down his choice to two in about a month, and next fall he’ll reveal which of the four has earned the right to start against Georgia Tech in the first game of the season.

It’s a long time to wait for the four competitors, but as Jones pointed out, it means that Weis took as much as possible into consideration.

“Patience is a virtue, and we’ve been waiting this long,” he said. “It won’t kill us to wait a little longer.”