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FOOTBALL: Into the Lions’ den

Chris Khorey | Sunday, September 9, 2007

Last fall, Jimmy Clausen was the biggest name in high school football. His games would sometimes draw more tan 10,000 people.

When Clausen makes his first collegiate start Saturday, it will be in front of 10 times that many.

A year ago, Clausen was beginning his senior year of high school. Now he’s wading through his second semester of classes at Notre Dame, with classmates and teammates who hope he can be the answer for a team that lost a lot of confidence after opening the 2007 season with a crushing 33-3 home defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech.

Clausen not only has to pick up the pieces, but he must do so in front of a predicted 110,000 Penn State fans bent on revenge after last year’s 41-17 drubbing by the Irish and behind an offensive line that allowed nine sacks last week.

But, according to Bill Redell – Clausen’s high school coach at Oaks Christian in Westlake Village, Calif. – if any freshman can handle it, it’s Clausen.

“What really helps is that his brothers [Casey and Rick] played at Tennessee, and he’s been in a stadium like that,” Redell said. “He knows what it’s like.”

Clausen’s current coach, Charlie Weis, is confident as well.

“I think he’s ready to run the offense,” he said. “I think he was always ready mentally.”

A superstar recruit

Clausen, a four-year starter at Oaks Christian, went 42-0 under center while throwing for over 10,000 yards and 146 touchdowns.

By his junior season, scouts hailed him as as the top quarterback recruit and one of the best high school players in the country.

Clausen’s reputation as a top-level recruit also got Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s attention.

“We knew a lot about him as a high school player, and he was an outstanding high school football player,” he said.

But just as his recruitment intensified, it came to an abrupt end. Clausen committed to Charlie Weis and Notre Dame on April 22, 2006 – the day of the Blue-Gold Game in South Bend.

Clausen almost stole the spotlight from Brady Quinn and the scrimmaging Irish, pulling up to the College Football Hall of Fame in a stretch Hummer limousine and announcing in front of a crowd in excess of 200.

Although the commitment decision was made relatively early, Redell said he is confident it was the right one.

“I think he chose the right school because of Charlie Weis and the great tradition and academics,” he said.

Clausen’s senior year lived up to the lofty expectations set by his announcement and recruiting hype. Oaks Christian went undefeated, and several of its games were broadcast nationally on ESPN. Then, at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a high school all-star game played in December, Clausen was presented with the Hall Trophy, given annually to the nation’s top high school football player.

Just a few weeks later, Clausen moved into St. Edward’s Hall at Notre Dame along with fellow freshman football players Armando Allen and Gary Gray. All three had decided to graduate from high school a semester early in order to jump into college classes and be able to participate in spring practice.

The injury mystery

Clausen arrived in South Bend with a sore elbow and refrained from throwing through his first few months on campus. But when spring camp opened, he jumped right in, competing with then-rising junior Evan Sharpley and then-rising sophomores Demetrius Jones and Zach Frazer for the starting quarterback job.

Weis revealed Tuesday that by the end of the spring, he had Clausen pegged as the No. 1 quarterback.

But the freshman’s sore elbow had other ideas.

When the pain wouldn’t go away, Clausen decided to have surgery to remove bone spurs.

In the meantime, Weis announced publicly that Sharpley, Jones and Clausen would compete in fall camp for the chance to start against Georgia Tech.

But when training camp opened Aug. 6, Clausen’s arm wasn’t fully healed. He could throw, but the distance and number of passes he threw were severely limited. Even though he was expected to be healthy in time for the opener, he could not get enough practice time to challenge for the starting job.

Weis ran misdirection with the media and Yellow Jackets coach Chan Gailey, saying on the first day of practice that “when we’re teeing off on Sept. 1, would Jimmy Clausen be capable of being our starting quarterback and slinging it 30 or 40 times? The answer would be yes.”

Weis revealed Tuesday what was really going on.

“After the spring, he had that spur taken off and then he rehabbed his way to, just as we had felt, that he was going to be ready to throw full speed by Sept. 1,” Weis said. “But he wasn’t ready to do everything on a daily basis until Sept. 1. So we kind of got in that gray area where we really couldn’t consider him as the starter for the opening game.”

Meanwhile, Weis decided to start Jones against Georgia Tech, adding some spread option plays to take advantage of Jones’ speed and emulate the West Virginia offense, which ran over, around and through the Yellow Jackets in a 38-35 win in last year’s Gator Bowl.

A opening day disaster

During the Georgia Tech game, the spread option experiment blew up in Weis’ face. Jones rushed for 28 yards, completed one pass for three yards, fumbled twice and produced no points in a quarter and a half running the show.

Sharpley replaced him and went 10-of-13 passing for 92 yards, but was also sacked seven times and produced just three points of his own.

Clausen played late, completing four of the six passes he threw – experience Weis said will be key on Saturday.

“I would be more concerned if his first reps were in front of 107,000 in Happy Valley, but I think we got that out of the way in the fourth quarter last week,” the coach said.

And now the freshman, finally healthy, steps under center for a team that has problems that go deeper than quarterback play.

The Irish offensive line gave up nine sacks on fewer than 40 called passes against the Yellow Jackets. It often look confused and flat-footed as the speedy Georgia Tech linebackers flew right past it.

Seeing that success, Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley will probably call a similar blitz package.

But Redell says Clausen showed in high school that he can negate pressure by making decisive throws.

“One of his great strengths is his ability to read the coverage and get rid of the ball quickly,” the high school coach said.

Weis said the offensive line will be working hard this week to stop blitzers in their tracks.

“I have a feeling we’re going to have a couple of very physical practices,” he said.

Irish sophomore wide receiver Robby Parris said the wide receivers can also help make Clausen’s job less difficult.

“A lot of what happens with the quarterback is what we do,” he said. “If we run our route well, it’s easier.”

Clausen, who has only spoken to the media once since arriving at Notre Dame due to Weis’ restrictions on access to freshmen, will continue to be sequestered until Weis sees fit to let him talk to reporters.

The legacy to live up to

Clausen starting the second game of the season marks the earliest a freshman has started under center for Notre Dame.

Previously, the earliest a freshman had started was in game four, which has happened four times – Blair Kiel in a win over Miami in 1981, Steve Beuerlein in a win over Colorado in 1983, Paul Failla in a win over Purdue in 1991, and, most recently, Brady Quinn in a loss to Purdue in 2003.

Irish freshman quarterbacks are 6-1 in their first starts, with Quinn owning the only loss. Several of them also have excellent track records following that first game.

Quinn was a four-year starter who owns more than 30 school records. His shadow will be the longest over Clausen, who has to replace the Cleveland Browns rookie who has already achieved legendary status in South Bend.

Ralph Guglielmi started for the first time as a freshman in 1951, then led the Irish to top five finishes in 1952, 1953 and 1954, while completing passes in 34 straight games and finishing fourth in the 1954 Heisman Trophy balloting.

Kiel and Matt LoVecchio, who took over in the fifth game of the 2000 season, led their teams to major bowl games after taking the reigns of the Irish in their freshman seasons. Kiel’s squad went 9-2-1, made the Sugar Bowl, and was undefeated in his first seven games under center.

LoVecchio won his first seven games under center, taking Notre Dame to its first ever BCS bowl appearance in the Fiesta Bowl.

Clausen has been compared to current Irish quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus. Powlus came to Notre Dame with almost as much hype as Clausen, then started for four years from 1994-97 after a preseason collarbone injury scuttled his freshman season in 1993.

And while Irish fans are probably hoping that Clausen can turn the 2007 squad around like Kiel and LoVecchio turned their teams around, there is historical precedent that the future might be brighter if the Irish struggle this season.

After tremendous starts to their careers, Kiel and LoVecchio struggled the rest of the way. Kiel was shunted on and off the bench by then-coach Gerry Faust and eventually lost his starting job in his senior year to then-freshman Beuerlein.

LoVecchio was benched for Carlyle Holiday after starting the 2001 season 0-3. He eventually transferred to Indiana.

By contrast, the 1951 squad averaged just 13 points per game with Guglielmi at the helm, Powlus’s first team struggled to a 6-5-1 record, and Quinn’s freshman year featured a 5-7 record and humiliating blowout losses to USC, Florida State and Syracuse. All three went on to set school records and lead successful Irish squads.

Redell says Clausen is ready to succeed right now.

“If there is a true freshman that can start at Notre Dame or any other major school, it’s Jimmy Clausen,” he said.