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Football: Clausen improves ‘everything’ in off-season

Bill Brink | Friday, April 18, 2008

The improvement was there, but it wasn’t evident until the end of a dismal season.

The so-called prodigy who hadn’t lost a game in high school suffered through a 38-0 loss to Michigan and was sacked 34 times. But after a bone spur in his elbow healed and he recovered from a sore hip after a particularly nasty crunch against Purdue, Jimmy Clausen perked up. And now, a year after his first spring game, Clausen’s coaches agree on what he’s improved: everything.

“Everything,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “Mentally, leadership, physically, every category the arrow has been pointing up.”

Quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus agreed.

“It’s everything,” Powlus said. “Managing the offense, the run game, going through the reads in the pass game, you can see the quarterback’s mind working.”

His improvement can be traced like an exponential equation throughout last season. The improvement poked out of the shadows briefly against Purdue, when he completed 19-of-26 passes with a touchdown and an interception before he left the game because of an injury. He played in 10 games, starting nine, and completed 56.3 percent of his passes. He threw for 1,254 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions. Not quite earth-shattering, but his last three games sang a different tune.

Clausen had his best game of last season in a loss to Air Force, when he threw for 246 yards and three touchdowns. He then had 194 yards and three more touchdowns against Duke and went 19-for-32 for 196 yards in the finale against Stanford.

Adjusting to campus life, along with the sheer number of plays he was required to learn, threw Clausen for a loop, but he said this year is different.

“Coming in last spring, I was new to everything, the college experience and being a college student; getting thrown in with everything, not knowing the plays,” Clausen said. “Now, this spring, it’s pretty much night and day.”

Weis compared Clausen’s learning curve to college class levels. Clausen, he said, jumped from 100-level classes to 300-level classes, bypassing the 200 level entirely. He’s not quite at the 400 or graduate level yet, Weis said, but made a “quantum leap” in knowledge.

To avoid a repeat of last season, Clausen took the initiative to improve upon himself. For starters, he packed on 18 pounds of muscle, mostly, Weis said on March 26, to his upper body. His extra mass, along with the fact that his throwing elbow has healed, makes him healthier than ever.

“Jimmy’s throwing the ball with a lot more zip, he’s a lot stronger,” wide receiver David Grimes said.

The voluminous playbook that troubled Clausen last year is coming into focus for him, he said. Rather than concerning himself with the routes of the receivers, he said, Clausen now looks for the offensive line’s blocking schemes.

“Mentally, I’ve progressed a lot,” he said. “I’m starting to get the little pieces of the playbook, last year I was trying to get the big picture.”

The mental aspect of Clausen’s transition encompasses, as Weis and Powlus said, everything. Powlus said Clausen was a perfectionist, and that his perfectionism and work ethic has transformed him into a leader.

“He’s a hard-working guy, he wants to know, he wants to do it right,” Powlus said. “He strives to make every throw perfect and strives to know exactly what’s happening on every play with everybody. When you do that you put yourself in a leadership position.”

Clausen said his increased grasp of the playbook helped him become a leader.

“You can’t be a leader until you know what you’re doing,” he said. “Last year I was just getting my feet wet real fast, picking put everything as quick as I can. Now I have a better grasp of the offense. I know what we’re supposed to do and what we’re capable of doing.”

A final factor in Clausen’s apparent leaps-and-bounds improvement is the absence of junior quarterback Evan Sharpley, who is currently playing first base for the Irish baseball team. This means Clausen is getting the majority of the reps in practice, drilling the playbook into his head even deeper. On the flip side, too many reps could hurt an arm which already had trouble, but Weis said he is taking care to keep Clausen healthy.

“Between the coaching staff and Jimmy, we’ve been able to manage getting through the spring with giving him a heavy dose,” Weis said.

Weis flirted with hyperbole when asked about how Clausen compared to former Irish quarterback Brady Quinn, he of 36 broken Notre Dame passing records, who led the Irish to two BCS bowls in his junior and senior year.

“At the start of his junior year, I would expect [Clausen] to be way ahead of where Brady was his junior year,” Weis said.

High praise for a sophomore with three career wins. But with Clausen’s increased practice time this off-season, added muscle and better grasp of the playbook, anything is possible this season. That goes for the team as well as Clausen, who said himself of spring practice: “We’ve got a fire burning right now.”